By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker spent months and millions of dollars on ads in the divisive recall election telling Wisconsin voters that the state is on the economic upswing — a strong dose of good news that even Mitt Romney backers acknowledge helps the incumbent, President Barack Obama.
Nearly $59 million of pro-Walker advertising leading up to June's recall vote hardened the right-track perception in this Midwest state, where the unemployment rate ticked down last month to 7.3 percent, well below the national average of 7.8.
Two weeks before Election Day, Romney faces the task of convincing voters that things aren't really looking up in Wisconsin as Walker has argued — or even though they are, four years of Obama's policies had nothing to do with it.
It's a challenge in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in the nation's midsection, where resurgent state economies and the federal government's 2009 bailout of Chrysler and General Motors are lifting Obama and some of his Democratic allies running for Senate after the Republican romp of 2010 claimed governorships, state legislatures and congressional seats.
In Indiana, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly has turned a taken-for-granted Republican Senate seat competitive in part because of the auto rescue package that is critical in Kokomo. His rival, Republican state treasurer Richard Mourdock, sued to block the bailout.
The outcome of these tight races will determine majority control of the Senate, currently a 53-47 Democratic advantage. Republicans need a net of four seats to take over if Obama is re-elected, three if Romney wins the presidency.
Polls show Obama with a slight lead in Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whose fate is largely tied to Obama, locked in a close race with former four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
"People think Wisconsin is headed in the right direction," said Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's chamber of commerce. "Unemployment is below the national average. We compare us with Illinois an awful lot and people feel generally good."
Unemployment in Illinois is at 8.8 percent and the state is struggling with a budget deficit and a downgrading from investors.
The Wisconsin organization spent heavily on behalf of Walker in the recall. The Republican governor, who won by seven percentage points, focused in his ads on the 30,000 jobs gained and elimination of the state deficit. "Let's keep moving Wisconsin forward," Walker told voters.
Bauer said it's ironic that it would help Obama, but general optimism tends to favor the incumbent. Crucial for Romney is for voters to make a distinction between Washington and Wisconsin, he said.
In Ohio, where unemployment dropped to 7 percent last month, Republican Gov. John Kasich has boasted about a resurgent state and job growth from the auto industry. That undercuts Romney's jobs-and-economy appeal and runs counter to Romney's opposition to the taxpayer-funded rescue package for the auto industry.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has embraced the bailout in a state where the auto industry is responsible for one in eight jobs. In a campaign ad, Brown sat behind the wheel of a Chevy Cruze, ticking off all the parts built in Ohio. Republican challenger Josh Mandel spent months unwilling to take a stand on the bailout, until last week when he announced his opposition.
In neighboring Indiana, the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors meant more than sparing thousands of jobs that might have disappeared if the auto mainstays had gone bankrupt. Chrysler is now investing more than $1 billion to build fuel-efficient, eight-speed automatic transmissions in Kokomo, one of the largest infusions of cash since the auto company's rebirth.
"We think about where we were two years ago," said Rex Gingerich, who owns Chrysler and GM dealerships. "It was not a very bright future. It really has been a miracle."
Gingerich, a registered Republican, says he hasn't decided who he'll vote for in the Senate race — three-term Rep. Donnelly, the local congressman and a strong proponent of the bailout, or Mourdock. As state treasurer, Mourdock more than opposed the Chrysler bailout, he sued to block it, arguing that it would undermine pensions for teachers and state police officers.