MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Although she normally votes Republican, Lynn Janka stared Wednesday at the names of the two major candidates in Wisconsin's Senate race before turning in her absentee ballot without marking either box.
The primary reason: too much negative campaigning.
"All you heard all are those nasty commercials on both sides," Janka, 48, a Waukesha cook, said after casting her ballot. "I didn't care for that at all."
It's little surprise that voters such as Janka are fed up. The more than $50 million spent on the race between former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin makes it the most expensive Senate election in state history. According to one study, it's almost the most negative Senate campaign in the country.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday shows Baldwin's standing has improved in the wake of one of the most negative ads in the race questioning Baldwin's patriotism for voting against a resolution honoring victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
While Baldwin and Thompson were effectively tied in a poll done two weeks ago before the ads, the latest one shows Baldwin slightly ahead: 47 percent to 43 percent. The poll of 1,243 likely voters was done between Oct. 25 and Sunday and had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
Should Baldwin defeat Thompson, it would mark a dramatic and surprising victory for Democrats in a race many saw as Thompson's to lose coming on the heels of big Republican gains since 2010.
The turning point in the race came in September, when Baldwin and her allies outspent Thompson 3-to-1 on advertising, said Marquette pollster Charles Franklin. During that time Baldwin went from trailing Thompson as she had since February to either being about even or ahead as she was in Wednesday's poll.
Since being outspent on the air, Thompson and his allies have rebounded and helped make the race the most expensive Senate campaign in Wisconsin history.
Baldwin's ads have cast Thompson as not caring about Wisconsin ever since he left government and earned millions in the private sector in Washington.
Thompson's ads have portrayed Baldwin as an extreme liberal. Many of the spots show unflattering images of Baldwin including footage of her from a rally earlier this year shouting, "You're damn right!"
But the rhetoric went to an even higher level last week with an ad from Thompson and a response ad by Baldwin related to the 9/11 attacks. Thompson's ad questioned Baldwin's 2006 vote against a resolution honoring victims of the attacks. Baldwin voted nine times for similar resolutions but didn't in 2006 because she said Republicans politicized the vote by injecting language praising GOP policies she opposed.
"Wisconsin voters have sent a strong message to Tommy Thompson that they are not fooled by his dishonest campaign of phony and false attacks," Baldwin's campaign spokesman John Kraus said in reaction to the poll. "Thompson's desperate campaign just grew more desperate with only five days until Election Day."
Thompson's spokeswoman Lisa Boothe issued a statement calling into question the integrity of the Marquette poll, saying it relied too heavily on respondents who identified themselves as Democrats.
That has been a frequent charge by Republican against Franklin's poll. He dismisses it, saying the poll represents a random sampling based on how people identify themselves. The results are not altered in any way to attempt to increase or decrease a political party's representation, he said.
Despite the poll's findings that Thompson is trailing, Boothe said he remained confident that his message was resonating with voters and he would prevail.
The poll also shows that the percentage of respondents who view Baldwin and Thompson favorably is the same — 38 percent — while Thompson's unfavorable rating is 51 percent compared with 45 percent for Baldwin.
"The advertising has done its damage to both candidates quite successfully," Franklin said. "But it leaves both candidates now in the position of suffering from negative views."
Nearly every ad run over a 30-day period ending Oct. 26 was negative, based on an analysis done by Kantar Media CMAG as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Of the 25,647 Senate ads aired in Wisconsin's television markets, 99 percent were negative, making the race the most negative in the country, based on the study.
While the ads may turn off some voters like Janka, it's galvanized others such as Baldwin supporter Marilyn Hetzler, 85, of Appleton.
"The commercials against her have been totally vicious," Hetzler said at a Baldwin campaign stop Tuesday in Appleton. "Tom has done nothing to stop them."
Thompson backer Barbara Malady, 62, of Waukesha said she voted for Thompson in part because she didn't like Baldwin's ads.
"I'm just not comfortable with Tammy," Malady said. "I don't like her commercials. I just don't trust her."
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Waukesha.