Tammy Baldwin: On the brink of victory?

Once a long shot, Tammy Baldwin could well beat Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin's Senate race. How she came this far

Published November 4, 2012 6:00PM (EST)

Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin has a great shot on Tuesday at becoming the first openly gay candidate elected to the United States Senate, and if the Wisconsin Democrat does end up beating her GOP opponent, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, it will be in no small part because, early on, the LGBT community recognized her potential to make history and decided to go all-in on her behalf.

It's been striking that Baldwin's sexual orientation has been a non-issue on the campaign trail, but LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the new Lesbian Super PAC have provided what might prove a decisive boost, including millions of dollars in bundled campaign contributions from a roaring activist base.

The cash infusion allowed Baldwin, a seven-term congresswoman from the liberal college town of Madison, to overwhelm Thompson on the television airwaves for a critical period this August, framing the debate on her own terms – she’s a populist fighter while Thompson, a once-beloved governor, “is not for us anymore” -- as the Republican struggled to refill his own coffers after the rigors of a brutal Tea Party primary.

That gay rights advocates have gone to bat so aggressively for Baldwin’s candidacy speaks to what many see as a tremendous opportunity to elevate issues like marriage equality and employment nondiscrimination inside the halls of the U.S. Senate, one of America’s most conservative institutions.

“Legislating is a very personal business,” says Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who came out after his third reelection in 1987. “It’s an added factor when you have a real, live flesh-and-blood human being who you are reacting to” while debating these issues.

Not long removed from the failed effort by Democrats here to oust union-busting Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin voters are once again showing their fickle – some like to say downright schizophrenic – political nature, apparently choosing the young, energetic and, yes, really quite liberal lesbian over the conservative old white guy.

“That’s just Wisconsin,” says Paul Maslin, a longtime pollster in the state who worked for Howard Dean’s quixotic presidential campaign in 2004 and is coordinating an independent expenditure campaign for EMILY’s List and other progressive groups working furiously on Baldwin’s behalf this cycle. “That’s what we do.”

Despite most observers initially labeling Thompson – who was reelected three times with wide margins and is known to most Badger State voters simply as “Tommy” – a shoo-in, the contrast between a grumpy, bombastic older man incredulous at the challenge and a younger woman appealing earnestly for every vote seems to be working in Baldwin’s favor.

“She’s been so measured and workmanlike and that stands in enormous contrast to Tommy Thompson, who has frankly embarrassed himself,” says Russ Feingold, the liberal champion and longtime U.S. senator here who was unseated at the height of the Tea Party wave in 2010. “He seems angry. He acts entitled to this position just because he’s Tommy, and people are sort of insulted by that. It’s not a very attractive image. He’s been bellicose.  Maybe people were into that in 2010 with the Tea Party, but Tommy’s a couple years behind – as he often has been.”

While Tammy Baldwin can be accused of many things, being behind the times is certainly not one of them. And those who know her best are not the least bit surprised by her political rise.

“What’s often happened with Tammy is that there are understated expectations, partly on the basis of her gender and sexual orientation,” says John Quinlan, a political activist and liberal radio host in the state who introduced Baldwin to her partner of 15 years (with whom she recently separated) and counts her as a friend. “She’s shown throughout her career that she can break through those barriers.”

There have been many such barriers, some thrown up by her own party elite; leading Democratic officials have sometimes fretted Baldwin was pushing too hard too fast.

“In '98 when she was in the primary for Congress as the first out person, there was a lot of nervousness in Washington among Democrats and the DCCC,” Rep. Frank told me. Two years prior, anxious that a veto might damage his cruise to reelection, President Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act, a regressive bill that makes it harder for states to advance the rights of gay couples. President Obama has called for DOMA’s repeal, though he has yet to expend much political capital on the issue.

Even so, Obama’s shift on marriage could be particularly useful in Baldwin’s case, as polls have shown Democrats and African-Americans in particular warming up to marriage equality since his announcement. Baldwin is counting on robust turnout from Democratic base voters, such as those in Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods, to push her over the top.

To be sure, Thompson has received his own boost from outside groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which to date has spent about $5 million on TV ads painting Baldwin as an extreme Madison liberal who can’t be trusted. This would probably have been enough to close the deal were it not for the Democrat’s ability to excite gay and feminist donors like no other politician in America. She has raised about $11 million – second only to national liberal superstar Elizabeth Warren – and outside spending in the Wisconsin Senate race is surpassed only by that in Virginia, a stunning revelation when one considers that TV ad time is way cheaper in Wisconsin than in the pricey Washington, D.C., media market.

“The way we’ve been able to define him is so crushing,” said Maslin, the pollster and ad-maker for Baldwin’s allies.

Baldwin’s cultivation of gay and lesbian activists and donors since arriving in Washington has been a huge help. Some 76 percent of her regular campaign contributions have come from out of state, a greater proportion than any other Senate candidate in America. But she is also energizing unions and other more traditional segments of the Democratic base that appreciate her unapologetic progressive populism.

More than anything else, though, the chance to achieve another “first” – Wisconsin was the first state to pass a gay rights bill decades ago – has clearly captured the imagination of liberal activists here.

“She has a tremendous ability to motivate young voters, and that’s partially because of the historic nature of her candidacy,” says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which, like the Victory Fund, has deployed field staffers to the state.

Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin political sage whose Marquette University Law School poll commands wide respect in the state (and nailed Scott Walker’s recall margin of victory), pegs Baldwin’s lead at 47 percent to 43 percent in his final pre-election survey. Though 10 percent of voters remain undecided, he’s bullish on Baldwin’s chances, and credits the massive spending by the candidate and her allies with upending the race by completely reversing Thompson’s standing with voters.

“It’s remarkable that a figure of his stature in the state has had his image change that much,” he says.

Pigeonholing Baldwin as just a “gay candidate” would be a mistake, as much of her work has been on economic issues, like the popular provision in the healthcare law that allows kids to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26. But she doesn’t deny for a second the significance of what a win means for gay rights.

“If you’re not in the room, the conversation is about you,” she told me in an interview in the backseat of her campaign SUV after a get-out-the-vote rally in downtown Milwaukee on a brisk Saturday late in October. “If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you. And If I’m elected to the U.S. Senate, that conversation will be transformed by virtue of the fact that I’m at the table.”

By Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose political reporting has appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, The Atlantic, NYMag.com, Capital New York, and VICE, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewt_ny.

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2012 Elections Lgbt Same-sex Marriage Tammy Baldwin Tommy Thompson U.s. Senate Wisconsin