Wisconsin’s Out Lesbian Tammy Baldwin Aims For US Senate

Tammy Baldwin, elected to the US House representing the Madison, Wisconsin, area in 1998, became the first Democrat to announce her candidacy to succeed Senator Herb Kohl, also a Democrat, who will not seek reelection next year.

Baldwin, who made her announcement on September 6, is one of four out lesbian or gay members of Congress, all of them Democrats, and would be the first out member of the Senate if elected in 2012.

Baldwin starts her campaign with the support of both the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as the National Organization for Women and Emily’s List, a group that promotes the election of pro-choice female candidates.

Her path to the Democratic nomination was smoothed by the recent announcement from former Senator Russ Feingold, who lost his seat in the 2010 election but remains popular among progressives, that he will not seek to replace Kohl.

Still, Baldwin trails the two strongest Republicans in the field — though only by margins of four to eight percent — according to an August poll conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP). The congresswoman, in a press teleconference on September 7, noted that polls also show she is currently known by no more than 55 percent of the Wisconsin electorate.

“In any poll taken now statewide, the results would mostly be due to name recognition. That’s why we say, ‘Share, share, share,’” Baldwin said, in an allusion to Facebook and her campaign’s commitment to maximize the impact of social networking to build her name recognition. “For many people, it would be the first they know of Tammy Baldwin.”

Baldwin understands the challenges facing her as an openly lesbian Democratic candidate from what is known nationally as perhaps the most left-leaning small city in America.

“This is going to be a tough race for both the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate,” she said, noting that Wisconsin is a classic swing state, split roughly evenly between the two parties.

The Capital Times, a progressive journal in Madison, addressed Baldwin’s vulnerabilities directly, in a September 13 analysis, quoting Wisconsin-based political consultant Paul Maslin, who has worked for Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying “Some people might say liberal, lesbian Madison woman, how is she going to do it? Even in Madison, they might say that. If you think that’s the only way this race gets defined, you might say sure, how is she doing to do it?”

Maslin went on to argue that a lot depends on how candidates define themselves and are defined by their opponents.

“Right now voters want to hear who is going to fight for me,” he told the Capital Times, which noted that Baldwin’s early entry into the race gives her the opportunity to establish her message with voters ahead of any attack ads that might surface.

Baldwin is casting herself as aggressive and independent.

“There are labels thrown around in a campaign,” she said in last week’s press call. “I am a fighter. And when you stand up to powerful interests, you tend to be get those kinds of labels.”

Baldwin zeroed in on two issues where she dissented from conventional political wisdom — and her party’s leadership — in ways that now have strong popular appeal. In 2003, she voted against the war in Iraq, and in 1999, she opposed deregulation in the financial services industry that many experts now say led to the crisis that nearly brought down the banking system in 2008 and created the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Baldwin doubled down in her anti-war posture last week, saying she is dissatisfied with the pace of disengagement being pursued by the Obama administration.

“I would suggest to the president that he bring all the troops home… from Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said, adding, of plans to keep a significant force in Afghanistan, “I would like to draw as bright a line as possible on an end to the war.”

In a September 6 video message posted on her campaign website, Baldwin said, “It’s time politicians looked out for seniors, working families, and the middle class — instead of protecting the profits of big oil and Wall Street,” a theme the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said she voiced to link “herself to the political tradition” of Kohl and Feingold.

But Maslin said of her maverick streak, “She has a chance to say, ‘I am not one of the boys.’”

Asked how her sexual orientation would play statewide in Wisconsin, Baldwin noted that a less urbanized congressional district in the western part of the state had elected Republican Steve Gunderson before she arrived in Washington in 1999. Gunderson, who was outed on the floor on the House in 1994 by fiery GOP right-winger Bob Dornan of California, went on to win reelection that year, though he retired two years later.

Baldwin serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and on the subcommittees on Environment and Economy and on Health. Among her congressional affiliations is her membership in the Progressive Caucus.

The Journal Sentinel noted that Madison is the state’s second largest population center, and that no Democratic contender seems likely to emerge from the Milwaukee area.

The newspaper reported that Baldwin’s announcement puts pressure on two other Democrats — Congressman Ron Kind of LaCrosse and former Representative Steve Kagen of Appleton — to make up their minds.

Mark Neumann, a former Republican congressman who represented the state’s southeastern corner — centered on Kenosha, which lies between the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas — and has announced he will seek his party’s Senate nomination, noted that the National Journal ranked Baldwin as tied for the most liberal member of Congress.

The PPP poll, released on August 18 when Feingold’s name was still being mentioned in connection with the 2012 race, showed Neumann with a 44 to 40 percent lead over Baldwin, just outside the margin of error.

Baldwin trailed former longtime Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who served as George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services, by a 50-42 margin. Thompson has not yet entered the race, however, and is considered vulnerable, according to PPP, to a challenge from the right by Neumann.

Another potential GOP candidate is Jeff Fitzgerald, the State Assembly speaker. Fitzgerald has been a key player in this year’s roiled climate in the state capital over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s success in severely curtailing the collective bargaining rights of government workers.

Asked how much she expected to have to raise to mount a successful campaign, Baldwin noted that last year’s gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin each spent in the neighborhood of $13-$15 million. The Wisconsin Democracy Project pegged total spending in that race — by candidates and unaffiliated political action committees — at $37.4 million.

Baldwin said that candidates also spent heavily in State Senate special elections earlier this summer prompted by voter anger over Walker’s assault on public employees’ rights — a sign of how contentiously fought political contests are in the current Wisconsin climate.

Baldwin said she raised $500,000 in the second quarter this year, in an effort geared toward reelection to the House. On July 1, she had $1.1 million in cash on hand, though she declined to speculate on what her third quarter haul might be. She clearly expects the pace of fundraising to accelerate dramatically in the wake of her September 6 announcement.

LGBT advocacy groups are energized at the opportunity to elect the first out lesbian or gay member of what has long been dubbed “the world’s most exclusive club.”

“We are enormously proud that Tammy has taken this courageous step, and we will be strong supporters of her campaign,” said Chuck Wolfe, head of the Victory Fund, which works to elect out LGBT candidates from both parties. “Tammy’s record in Congress proves she’ll be a fighter in the Senate for expanding fairness and freedom for all Americans, and Wisconsin families will have no better advocate in Washington.”

“Tammy Baldwin’s candidacy for the US Senate is monumental for both the state of Wisconsin and the country’s LGBT community,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in announcing his group’s endorsement. “Tammy has proven herself as an effective legislator over the course of her 13 years in Congress and this campaign will be a top priority for the Human Rights Campaign.”