A conservative political group known for its provocative and, at times, controversial ads targeting minority voters has named Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race a priority for 2018.
"Ron Johnson, which we were involved in, heavily involved in, demonstrates quite frankly that there may be a shift underneath in the state of Wisconsin. It’s no longer an automatic Democratic state," said Tom Donelson, head of the Iowa-based America's PAC, in an interview. "I would say, obviously, replacing Tammy Baldwin would be a goal."
No Republican candidates have formally entered the race to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is serving her first term in the Senate after representing Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District for seven terms.
Her re-election bid will come two years after an upset win by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who defeated former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold for a second time in 2016.
America's PAC ran a Spanish-language radio ad during that race that accused Feingold of not wanting Hispanic babies to be born.
"I have a question for Feingold. Why should you have my vote if you don’t want our babies?" a woman asked in the $66,000 spot that aired on Spanish-language and gospel radio stations in the Milwaukee and Racine markets.
Feingold's campaign, at the time, said the ad consisted of "racist, inflammatory and exploitative insults" and called it an "insult to Wisconsin's women."
The ad was similar to others run in past campaigns by the group, which used similar language to encourage black and Latino voters to support Gov. Scott Walker in his 2014 campaign against Democrat Mary Burke.
Asked whether the PAC would get involved in the 2018 gubernatorial race, in which Walker is expected to seek re-election, Donelson said the group will focus on federal contests.
America's PAC was formed with the goal of encouraging racial minority groups to vote Republican, but the group has expanded its focus now to include "Trump Republicans" — specifically single, white women, Donelson said.
"Our objective is basically expanding the conservative majority, getting enough minority voters to add to the mixture while enhancing the value of the base combination," Donelson said.
The group's ads aim to "take the fear out of voting Republican," he said.
A Democratic spokeswoman accused the group of engaging in voter suppression efforts.
"While Washington special interests brag about planned voter suppression tactics, Tammy Baldwin is in Neenah, Wisconsin announcing legislation to create and retain more jobs in Wisconsin. No matter what lies D.C. insiders spew at her, Tammy will continue her fight for the people of Wisconsin to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Gillian Drummond.
America's PAC's tactics have earned rebuke from the left and the right, particularly when the group was still led by its founder Richard Nadler, who died in 2009.
A 2000 school choice ad was called "racist or race-baiting in intent" by the Republican National Committee and denounced as "inappropriate" by George W. Bush's presidential campaign. The ad featured a white parent complaining that his child's public school was "a bit more diversity" than he could handle.
A 2006 ad linked Democrats who opposed the Iraq War to white supremacist David Duke, who had spoken at an anti-war rally. More recently, Republican President Donald Trump disavowed Duke's support in the 2016 election.
Donelson distanced himself from the 2000 school choice ad, which he said was "done on a local basis."
"As far as the abortion ads go, I would put it this way," Donelson said. "We’re asking the question that minority voters need to ask: Why are you voting for a party that doesn't really want your babies?"
Donelson pointed to data that show the abortion rate among black women is five times higher than that of white women, and twice as high among Latina women.
Rather than asking America's PAC to explain or defend its ads, Donelson said, he would like to see reporters ask Democrats to defend those statistics.
"We tell the truth and we let the others deal with it, let them defend it," he said.
Ads in 2018 will focus on job creation, education and abortion, and may also highlight national security and health care, Donelson said.
Records show the group's largest funder is Richard Uihlein, CEO of the Uline shipping supply company headquartered in Pleasant Prairie. Mary Kohler, vice president of the Sheboygan-based Windway Foundation, is another major donor.
Rumored Republican challengers include businessman Eric Hovde; state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau; state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa; state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy announced last month he will not run for the seat.
Baldwin's campaign has focused its opposition efforts on Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. Clarke, a top Trump surrogate during the campaign, has not announced a run, but several political action committees have launched efforts to "draft" him for the race.
Baldwin's approval rating among Wisconsin voters is 40 percent, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this week.