Knives come out as Tom Tiffany announces for Congress

Democrats jump on 'Toxic Tom'

US Capitol Building exterior
US Capitol West Side (photo by Martin Falbisoner, Wikimedia Commons)
official photo of state Sen. Tom Tiffany
Sen. Tom Tiffany

On Tuesday, state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minoqua) became the first candidate to announce he is running for the seat vacated by Congressman Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), after Duffy’s surprise announcement that he is stepping down. 

Tiffany made his announcement at several stops in the 7th Congressional District, the largest in Wisconsin, encompassing 20 counties and most of the top half of the state. The district will be an important battleground in the 2020 presidential election. Tiffany, who is running as an outspoken Trump supporter, emphasized the national importance of his race, opining that “Nancy Pelosi is salivating about a low-turnout special election.”

Certainly, state Democrats did not hesitate to pounce on Tiffany’s announcement. Within hours of his campaign kickoff, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin launched a website, ToxicTomTiffany.com, devoted to Tiffany’s record of accepting contributions from mining and chemical companies, voting against environmental regulations, cutting the number of scientists at the DNR and sending money out of his district in the form of tax cuts for corporations and to pay for out-of-district voucher schools.

Why Toxic Tom?

The name “Toxic Tom” was coined by Tiffany’s opponent in the 2016 state senate race, Bryan Van Stippen, who pointed to Tiffany’s deciding vote for a bill that shielded lead paint manufacturers from paying damages for harm caused to children.  

Van Stippen lost that race, and the district helped elect Donald Trump. Republicans have won there consistently in recent years, ever since district boundaries were redrawn after Duffy took over the seat vacated by progressive Democratic Congressman David Obey in 2010. 

Even before Tiffany announced, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler appeared to be preparing the campaign against him weeks ago when he told  Wisconsin Examiner in an interview:

“[Tiffany] has worked with special interests to allow toxic sulfide mining. He has voted to send millions of dollars from the Northwoods to fund private schools through vouchers. He’s voted against the Medicaid expansion, which his constituents urgently need.

 “Again and again on issues that are central to the lives of his own voters, he has betrayed them,” Wikler added. The district went heavily for Trump in 2016, but Democrats have recently hired a second field organizer there and he says local Democratic Party activists are fired up.

“It’s a giant district that’s been trending Republican, thanks especially to all the gasoline that Trump and Walker poured on all the fires of division in the state,” says Wikler. “But the progressive roots run very deep there.”

And Tiffany, Wikler said, “barely crosses the electibility threshold in his own senate district.”

Announcement tour kickoff

One Wisconsin Now, a left-leaning advocacy group, also put out a press release underscoring Tiffany’s disconnect with district voters.

Among the “Seven stops not on Tom Tiffany’s Congressional announcement tour” the group listed the Gogebic Taconite mine site on the shores of Lake Superior, an abandoned project Tiffany once supported. Tiffany introduced legislation that then-Gov. Scott Walker acknowledged had been drafted under the supervision of mining company lobbyists to roll back environmental protections and fast-track the project, avoiding local input.  

Other stops One Wisconsin Now suggested include the Milwaukee Bucks Arena, Milwaukee voucher schools and FoxConn, the Taiwanese electronics plant near Racine. They are all far outside Tiffany’s district. But all have benefitted from large gifts of taxpayer money thanks to measures Tiffany supported.

“For a legislator representing northern Wisconsin, he sure has sent a lot of money to southeastern Wisconsin, and even overseas,”  Mike Browne of One Wisconsin Now told Wisconsin Examiner. 

There’s a pattern of behavior that’s emerging there,” Browne added. “He’s certainly voting on behalf of special interests and against his district, on the economy, on the environment, and on education.”

The school privatization lobby has been a particularly powerful ally of Tiffany’s.

The national pro-school-voucher group, American Federation for Children, spent heavily on TV and radio ads attacking Van Stippen, Tiffany’s 2016 opponent. 

“The group’s estimated $5.4 million in election spending [between 2010 and 2015] puts it among the top echelon of special interest group spending to influence Wisconsin state elections,” the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign named American Federation for Children its “influence peddler of the month” in October 2016, noting that the group spent $500,000 on radio and broadcast ads throughout the fall attacking Democrats in state legislative elections on issues that had nothing to do with education or school vouchers. Most of that money–$337,900–went to attack Tiffany’s opponent.

Tiffany supported budget measures dramatically cutting public-school funding, including an estimated $24 million in his own district, and expanding school vouchers statewide, sending tax dollars to cover private-school tuition at voucher schools in other parts of the state.

Making the 7th Great Again  

“I’m the ally President Donald J. Trump needs to keep moving our country forward,” Tiffany wrote on his campaign Facebook page, announcing his candidacy.

The six comments visible on this post by the end of the day were: 

  • “No thank you.”
  • “Anyone thinking Trump is moving us forward will never have my vote.”
  • “An ally of Donald Trump is not a friend of Wisconsin. You suck.”
  • “Tom, I hope you hold your family values closer to your heart than Mr. Trump,”
  • A link to the Democratic Party’s Toxic Tom Tiffany website.
  • A reply to that link: “a smear piece with zero evidence of anything actually ‘toxic’ isn’t reason to dismiss the man. Of course he was lobbied and funded by a bunch of mining interests…he was ALREADY on their side from a philosophical/legal perspective…as should be.” 
Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.

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