Wisconsin has upheld its reputation as a truly purple state by electing Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, by a solid margin of 51 to 46, and reelecting President Barack Obama to a second term, just months after handing the Tea Party and out-of-state special interests a victory by voting to keep far-right Governor Scott Walker in office. Baldwin's victory, along with Elizabeth Warren's win in Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown's win in Ohio, helps ensure Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate.
Running to "Make a Difference"
"Now, I am well aware that I will have the honor of being Wisconsin's first woman senator. And I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay member," Baldwin said in her acceptance speech in Madison, which she has represented for seven terms in the U.S. Assembly. "But I didn't run to make history. I ran to make a difference."
Baldwin's sexual orientation never became a major issue in the race. She did receive important financial backing from national gay rights and women's groups, but gained support across the state with a soft demeanor and by touting her strong record on trade policies that help workers rather than global corporations. Baldwin also highlighted her work fighting to secure health care for all. In addition to these direct appeals to the middle class, Baldwin pledged independence from special interests, and criticized her opponent for his work at Washington DC-based lobbying firms that worked for big healthcare and helped firms outsource jobs.
"Tonight, at the end of a long and hard-fought campaign, we have won a huge victory for Wisconsin's middle class," Baldwin said Tuesday night.
As many as five other female Senators were elected Tuesday night, with North Dakota and Nevada still too close to call, and come January, women could occupy a record-breaking twenty U.S. Senate seats.
Defeats Tommy Thompson, Karl Rove and the Kochs
Her victory was not expected at the start of the general election. Her challenger, Tommy Thompson, had remained popular since his time as Wisconsin's governor from 1987 to 2001. He had largely governed as a moderate conservative and was reelected with wide margins. During the hard-fought 2012 GOP U.S. Senate primary, though, his moderate roots made him a target for out-of-state groups seeking to anoint a more conservative candidate. He was attacked by millions in ads portraying him as a liberal from Super PACs like Club for Growth and dark money groups like Americans for Job Security, which pushed Thompson into taking far-right positions to survive the primary.
After the primary, Thompson and outside groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity spent millions trying to portray Baldwin as "too extreme," citing her past support for single-payer health care and for supporting a budget plan from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But Thompson apparently was the candidate who had become too extreme for Wisconsin. He could not recover from controversial positions he had taken in the primary, such as when he told a Tea Party meeting "Who better than me ... to do away with Medicaid and Medicare."
The race was seen as key to control of the U.S. Senate, and spending on both sides helped make Wisconsin's Senate contest the second-most expensive for outside money in the country and the most expensive in state history.
Baldwin will take the seat of Senator Herb Kohl, a moderate Democrat who represented Wisconsin for 24 years. But she is expected to follow more closely in the footsteps of Wisconsin's former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, a principled and staunchly independent politician who was ousted in 2010 by Tea Party Republican Ron Johnson.
Baldwin's seat in the Assembly will be filled by Marc Pocan, who is also gay and as a state legislator fought against corporate influence facilitated by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
"The peoples' voice was heard tonight, Wisconsin, and come January, your voice will be head in the United States Senate," Baldwin said Tuesday. "I am honored and humbled and grateful and ready to get to work."