Originally published on Advocate.com September 06 2011 7:35 AM ET
It’s no surprise that Rep. Tammy Baldwin is running for U.S. Senate, as she announced Tuesday via email to supporters as well as an online video message. The seven-term congresswoman has been candid in recent interviews about her desire to run for retiring senator Herb Kohl’s seat, and her fund-raising numbers back up her ambitions. But the significance of the potential milestone perhaps cannot be understated: If elected, Baldwin would become the first openly LGBT senator in history.
“I’ve always believed that having a seat at the table matters,” Baldwin told The Advocate via phone on Tuesday afternoon. “It matters that our legislative bodies are representative of the whole diversity of our country and of my state. Nobody checks their life experience at the door.”
In her video announcement, Baldwin highlighted her progressive record and political journey, with graphics that included a newspaper headline from her 1998 campaign that reads “Baldwin’s Election Opens Doors for Gays” (see video below).
But she also focused on unemployment, protecting seniors, and helping college students shackled with insurmountable debt as well as her opposition to financial deregulation and the war in Iraq. “The issues here in Wisconsin, and frankly across the nation, that are going to get people involved have to do with fundamental fairness,” Baldwin said. “When you listen to the debates in Washington, D.C., and in Madison, there’s a complete disconnect between those debates and the struggles that Wisconsin families face,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin’s decision to run comes after promising second-quarter fund-raising figures from the House’s only openly gay female representative. Political experts say the bid could cost her at least $10 million and quite possibly more to wage a successful campaign against Republicans eyeing the seat. Though her campaign website urges voters to support “bold progressive values in the U.S. Senate,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee has cast her as “an avowed supporter of job-killing tax hikes, reckless deficit spending, and out-of-control debt.”
As was the case with the Wisconsin state recall elections this past summer that drew millions in out-of-state political dollars, the race for Kohl’s Senate seat will attract the national spotlight. Baldwin already faces at least one viable challenger, former Republican congressman Mark Neumann, who has an antigay voting record and a history of off-the-cuff remarks against equality.
“She’s voted for virtually the entire Obama agenda, except for when it wasn’t liberal enough,” Neumann, who lost his 2010 gubernatorial bid to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, said in a Tuesday statement on Baldwin’s announcement. Neumann attacked Baldwin on issues such as health care reform and government spending.
Baldwin declined to comment specifically on Neumann’s statement and past comments. “I have always been open about my sexual orientation, and voters appreciate integrity and honesty in elected and public officials,” she said. “I have no idea who the Republicans are going to nominate for the U.S. Senate, but if I get to the point where I am in a debate with someone who supports discrimination and is against equality, I will stand up.”
A showdown between Neumann and Baldwin is not the only possible scenario, of course. Republican Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is also in the running for his party's nomination (the primary election is in September 2012). Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson — who is by contrast more moderate, and whose name recognition is among the strongest of any politician in the state — also is mulling a senatorial bid, Politico first reported in May.
Two of Baldwin’s fellow Democrats are also considering running for Kohl’s Senate seat: Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents Wisconsin’s third congressional district; and former Wisconsin congressman Steve Kagen, who lost his seat last year to Republican Reid Ribble. Baldwin bested both potential primary opponents by double digits in an early poll last month, with 37% support versus 21% for Kind and 15% for Kagen.
It’s yet to be seen whether Wisconsin voters can expect to see campaign literature attacking Baldwin for her sexual orientation. Mainstream candidates are increasingly less likely to use anti-LGBT rhetoric in the current political climate, said Denis Dison, vice president of communications for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a longtime supporter of Baldwin's political career. “But we have seen surrogates do it. Sometimes it’s subtle — for instance, a candidate may rely unusually heavily on family themes to contrast with an openly LGBT opponent.”
“Voting records are always fair game, of course,” Dison continued. “Any candidate has to be prepared to defend his or her experience and issue positions but also to demand explanations for why an opponent may have voted differently. What we seek for our endorsed candidates is a level playing field, so we’re going to help them respond to anti-LGBT attacks whether overt or subtle.”
One of Baldwin’s main challenges, said Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy, is selling her political record outside of her liberal district. “She’s the candidate that Republicans want. They think her record doesn’t sell,” Duffy said. “But I think she’s going to have a lot of support from her party,” especially if there is no serious primary challenger.
Prior to announcing her bid, Baldwin said she had conversations with former House members who have gone on to serve in the Senate as well discussions with Senator Kohl. “I’ve been in touch with him to thank him for his service, to express to him my sincere sadness that he won’t continue to be my senator, but also to talk about my interest in running for the seat,” Baldwin said. “He’s been certainly very encouraging.”
Baldwin is well aware of the critical legislation on LGBT rights that Congress has yet to pass and said she would continue the fight in the Senate. “One of my biggest honors in the House was to be cofounder of the LGBT Equality Caucus, to bring clear focus to the areas in which full equality have still not been attained at the national level,” she said. “I would certainly hope to be a strong, clear voice for equality in the Senate. I join those leaders who have already championed a wide range of issues, but I also recognize that there are folks who are retiring, and issues that still need a champion, and I certainly expect to step in and fill that need.”
The end of Baldwin's tenure in the House of Representatives would not necessarily mean one fewer seat held by an openly gay lawmaker. Wisconsin state representative Mark Pocan, who was elected to Baldwin’s seat in the state legislature after she became a congresswoman, has indicated he would be interested in running in the second district congressional race. Sources tell The Advocate Pocan will announce his candidacy Wednesday.