On a rainy Sunday night in Madison, Wisconsin, 30 energized volunteers turned out at the Democratic headquarters on State Street to register University of Wisconsin students to vote. Tammy Baldwin, sporting a magenta blazer, milled about, chatting with the constituents she represents in the U.S. House. Come January, she'll either be out of Congress or representing a larger swath of the state in the U.S. Senate.
Facing former four-term Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, Baldwin is locked in one of the closest Senate races in the country. Most recent polls have her favored by a slim margin, with Real Clear Politics' average putting her up by just 0.3 percent. It's been a brutal few years for Democrats in Wisconsin. The state elected and re-elected one of the nation's most right-wing governors, launched Paul Ryan into the national spotlight, and voted out progressive icon Russ Feingold. If Baldwin wins, though, she will disprove conservatives' claims that Wisconsin is no longer a bastion for progressive politics.
Stepping up to a podium emblazoned with "Students for Obama-Baldwin," Baldwin told the students how she got her start in politics, back when she wasn't much older than them. As a 24-year-old first-year law student at the University of Wisconsin, Baldwin ran for and won a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. "One of my first political battles,” she said, “was trying to be taken seriously by my colleagues who thought I was representing a bunch of folks who were just here for a year or two or four, and perhaps didn’t take them seriously as contributing citizens." Since then, she has indeed come to be taken seriously and is known for being a leader of the Democrats' progressive wing on issues ranging from women's rights to foreign policy.
While Baldwin’s staunch progressivism can be a tough sell in parts of Wisconsin, which has leaned increasingly right in recent years, she has no trouble connecting with young Democrats at the University of Wisconsin. One of her best-known accomplishments in Congress has been co-authoring an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that allows young adults to remain on their parents' insurance until they are 26—the inspiration for which she traces back to her childhood in Madison. Raised by her grandparents, Baldwin fell ill when she was nine and spent three months in the hospital. "When I came out, my bills came through, and my grandparents realized that their family health-insurance policy didn’t cover grandchildren," she said. "They had to make an enormous sacrifice, draw from their retirement savings in order to save me." Thereafter, her grandparents couldn't find coverage for Baldwin because she had a “pre-existing condition.” “I just grew up knowing that that was wrong,” she said.
Baldwin speaks in a mild, calm manner—a point of frustration at times with her liberal supporters, who’d like to see a bit more fire. But she offers the same resolute defense of liberal ideas that has drawn progressives to Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts. Even as she appeals to voters outside her base in lefty Madison, Baldwin hasn't ditched her commitment to the steadfast progressive platform that has defined her career in the House. She is a leader of the House's liberal wing, tied with six other Democrats as the most liberal representative in a 2010 National Journal ranking. Beyond her long-standing support for health-care reform, Baldwin opposed the Iraq War from the start and was one of only 66 House members to vote against the 2001 Patriot Act.
Baldwin’s opponent, a former four-term governor, was remembered fondly by many in the state. In 1998, the last time he ran for public office, he won by 21 points. As governor, he had typified the age of moderate Midwestern Republicans who pushed low taxes and minimal regulation but didn't view compromise with Democrats as the ultimate evil. Thompson reformed the state's welfare program to push poor families off government assistance but also created BadgerCare, a health-care program that expands insurance access to families whose incomes put them above the Medicaid cutoff but who didn't receive insurance coverage from their employer. That carried over to his role as secretary of George W. Bush's Department of Health and Human Services, where he expanded the social safety net with Medicare Part D. In 2005, he left to lobby on behalf of the pharmaceutical industries that benefited from Part D.
When he plunged back into Wisconsin politics, Thompson found himself challenged from the right—and nearly lost the Republican primary. To survive, he abandoned his image as a pragmatic conservative and adopted far-right policy positions that pushed him out of the mainstream. Like Romney, Thompson had his own damaging hidden-camera moment: Shaky cam footage caught Thompson telling a Tea Party group in Oconomowoc that it was time to “change Medicare and Medicaid, like I did welfare.” Nearly shouting, emphatically pointing at his chest, Thompson declared: "And who better than me, who's already finished one of the entitlement programs, to come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare." Predictably, this “do away with Medicaid and Medicare” moment has been featured in numerous attack ads this fall.
Thompson's real trouble, though, stems from depleting his campaign war chest fighting off other Republicans. He barely squeaked through the four-man August primary, garnering just 34 percent. "It was a very bruising primary," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at Marquette University. "Who would have thought a four-term governor would come back to that kind of reception?" Thompson told National Review that he finished the primary “a million dollars in the hole.”
Now in the general election, the Senate race has spun into one of the most fiercely negative contests in the county, fueled by $43 million in outside spending, according to the Federal Elections Commission. A study of ads run in the past month by Baldwin and Thompson revealed that 99 percent of their TV time has been spent on the attack, with neither candidate—nor their outside allies—devoting resources to building a positive image.
Democratic ads have focused on Thompson's stint as a lobbyist for the health-care industry while at the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, claiming he's long since “gone Washington” and lost touch with Wisconsin. Thompson and the Republicans have painted Baldwin as an extremist, a standard Madison liberal who’s out of sync with the rest of the state. Over the past week, the campaign reached a new low, with the candidates sparring over their respective responses to the attacks of September 11. Thompson says Baldwin voted against a bill honoring the victims; she indeed voted against the measure in 2006 because it included praise for the Patriot Act but favored the bill in other years. Meanwhile, Baldwin accuses the Republican of making a $3 million profit off the backs of 9/11 responders' health-insurance contracts; while Thompson's employer did bungle the responders' insurance for a brief time, the firm fixed the problem, and it's unclear what direct role Thompson himself played. Not surprisingly, both candidates now have high unfavorable ratings.
Somehow, though, one line of attack has been verboten in the campaign: Baldwin's sexual orientation. In 1998, Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to a first term in the U.S. House (others had come out while serving). If she defeats Thompson, Baldwin will become the first openly gay senator. It would be an astonishing feat in a state that just six years ago voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage by a 20-point margin.
The Thompson campaign quickly learned to steer clear of innuendo about Baldwin’s sexual orientation. When Thompson’s political director e-mailed a video of Baldwin dancing at a pride parade in 2010 (with Wonder Woman standing beside her) and criticized her lack of "heartland values,” near-universal public outrage prompted Thompson to demote the aide. Baldwin's orientation hasn’t been an issue since—not overtly, at least. Two anti-Baldwin attack ads have flirted with the subject. Produced by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the first ad claimed that "Tammy Baldwin's tax-and-spend agenda is just too extreme for Wisconsin." Nothing unusual about that. But its key moment was a clip dredged up from a speech Baldwin gave in 2011 discussing the protests against Scott Walker's anti-union measures. "You're damn right!" she shouts, with a stern, angry furrow across her brow. Shortly after, the National Republican Senatorial Committee picked up on the same clip, running it four times over the course of a 30-second ad that charges Baldwin with being "more extreme than Pelosi." As Politifact Wisconsin wrote, the majority of that speech was delivered in Baldwin’s typical "measured, low-key style." The brief outburst is uncharacteristic of her manner but does fit a typecast. As the Advocate described the ad, it was" a none-too-subtle attempt to portray Baldwin as a stereotypical angry lesbian."
If Baldwin prevails, it would be one of the year’s biggest upsets. Democrats had dim hopes for holding on to the seat when longtime Senator Herb Kohl announced his retirement last year. Thompson was the prohibitive favorite. He had 84 percent name recognition in June, compared with 57 percent for Baldwin. The former governor also led nearly every poll at the start of the year, often by wide margins; one Rasmussen poll had him up by 16 points in June. That flipped at the end of the summer, after Baldwin unloaded a barrage of attack ads against Thompson.
Baldwin, unchallenged by a serious Democrat, had stocked up cash to pay for ads that had a common refrain: “Tommy Thompson, he's not for you anymore.” While Thompson has since begun to close the funding gap (partially thanks to an assist from American Crossroads), those early ads struck a chord. Thompson hasn't helped himself by running a campaign that has been widely regarded as ineffectual, with the candidate often coming across as cranky and out of touch; at one point, he repeated John McCain’s 2008 mistake and forgot how many homes he owns.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein noted that a Baldwin victory would likely clinch a majority for the Democrats. If Thompson loses, it could be the second straight election cycle in which the Tea Party’s desire for purity has wrecked Republicans’ chances of regaining a majority in the Senate.
Despite the perception of Wisconsin as a new stronghold for conservatives, it remains a deeply divided state. And though he’s bent their way, Thompson has failed to energize the right, Walker-style. In this campaign, he’s more closely resembled Democrat Tom Barrett, Walker's opponent, who never fully captured the spirit of the left that brought thousands to the state capitol to protest the governor’s labor-bashing. Wisconsin's liberals, though, have never needed to worry whether Tammy Baldwin were on their side.