Friday, November 28th, 2014

Tommy vs. Tammy: A US Senate debate primer

Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin square off Friday in the first of three U.S. Senate debates.
Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin square off Friday in the first of three U.S. Senate debates.

With polls showing his lead evaporating, Tommy Thompson will meet Tammy Baldwin Friday for the first of three debates in the race for an open Wisconsin U.S. Senate.

Let’s see, using the Truth-O-Meter, what we know about the former Republican governor and the Democratic congresswoman from Madison.

We’ll focus on statements about taxes, health care and the past records of the candidates -- areas that have seen many claims and counterclaims already.

(By the way, we’ll live tweet Friday’s one-hour debate, which starts at 8 p.m. Central. We’re @PolitiFactWisc on Twitter.)

Taxes

A public employee union’s claim that Thompson "supports massive tax cuts for corporations that outsource jobs" was rated Half True -- partially accurate but leaving out important information.

Thompson would, under certain conditions, exempt from taxation U.S. companies’ profits from overseas operations. But it’s not clear whether U.S. employment would decline under this approach; and part of Thompson’s plan provides incentives that could convince companies to bring profits back home.

We also rated Half True a Baldwin claim that Thompson would give a $265,000 tax cut to millionaires like himself, while raising taxes on the middle class. The tax cut figure, as an average, is accurate, but the impact of Thomson’s plan for middle-class taxpayers is far less clear.

Baldwin’s claim that Thompson’s tax plan would cut taxes by $87,000 for the top 1 percent of income earners was rated Mostly True. Thompson didn’t refute the figure and experts said it was a good estimate, but that Thompson’s plan lacks enough detail to know for sure.

Health care

Thompson claimed Baldwin wants a "completely government-controlled" health care system that goes "far beyond Obamacare" and is "a Medicare system for all." We rated that Mostly True -- accurate but needing clarification or more information.

Baldwin hasn’t advocated for socialized medicine. But she has pushed "Medicare for all" legislation and she supports single payer and the public option -- government elements that go beyond President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.

Baldwin’s claim that Thompson said he wants "to do away with Medicare" was rated Half True.

Thompson used those words -- but he was talking about a dramatic transformation of Medicare in order to save government health care assistance to seniors, not end it outright.

Baldwin earned a True when she said that when Thompson served as U.S. health and human services secretary after leaving the governor’s office, a federal law was adopted that prohibits the federal government from negotiating for "better prices" on prescription drugs for senior citizens on Medicare.

Past records

We rated Half True a charge by Eric Hovde, one of Thompson’s opponents in the GOP Senate primary, that Thompson is "a big corporate lobbyist" who was "lobbying during the middle of the campaign."  

Thompson, who joined a Washington legal and lobbying firm after leaving the health secretary’s post, is not a registered lobbyist. But he did, as a consultant, sell his influence and connections to firms to whom it would benefit on Capitol Hill.

Thompson claimed that when he was governor, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dipped to 2.1 percent and was lowest in the nation for more than three years running. Federal statistics refuted the "lowest in the nation" claim, and the 2.1 percent is on target only if you cite preliminary numbers from a less-preferred statistical method. We rated that claim False.

But Thompson was given a Mostly True for saying that while he was governor, "we ended welfare." His W-2 program didn’t eliminate every program that might be considered a handout. But it did end the entitlement program most commonly known as welfare, replacing it with one that requires nearly all recipients to work for their benefits.

Thompson also got a Mostly True for saying Wisconsin’s tax burden went down during his 14 years in the governor’s chair. The drop came late in his tenure, and some particular levies such as income taxes were on a wild roller-coaster ride, but statistics generally backed him up.

As for Baldwin’s record, we rated Mostly True Thompson’s claim that Baldwin ranked as the "most liberal" member of the U.S. House. She was tied with other members in three major rankings.

We rated as Mostly False Baldwin’s claim that she "led the fight to require the Coast Guard to buy their engines" from U.S. rather than foreign companies. The claim was off the mark in that her efforts, aimed at helping one Wisconsin manufacturer, never become law.

Jeff Fitzgerald, another Thompson opponent in the primary, suggested Baldwin had been nearly invisible during her 14 years in Congress when he said she had sponsored 105 bills and only three became law.  We rated his claim Mostly True.

The number of Baldwin bills that became law is only one measure of her overall record -- and one that can be misleading when viewed in isolation.