Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s potential to become the first openly gay Senator escalates the already sizable implications of the state’s open-seat race. When she jumps in, Baldwin will have a national fundraising network ready to mobilize.
The retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D) placed Wisconsin in the 2012 spotlight of states that could decide Senate control. Baldwin’s forthcoming candidacy represents another step forward for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, which has been buoyed in recent months by New York’s legalization of same-sex marriages and by polling showing a majority of Americans favor legal gay marriage.
The Democrat isn’t new to breaking down barriers. In 1998, Baldwin became the first woman to represent Wisconsin in Congress and the first openly gay nonincumbent to be elected to Congress. At the time, she was the only Wisconsin state legislator who was openly gay.
Baldwin now has a chance to do it again, and that possibility is exciting national women and gay rights groups, who are already rallying their supporters.
Groups including the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign have supported Baldwin’s political career for almost 20 years, and they intend to tap into their vast supporter lists to fully back a Senate bid by the seven-term Congresswoman, whose voting record has consistently been among the most liberal in the House.
“She has been part of the [consciousness] of our organization for two decades,” Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund spokesman Denis Dison told Roll Call.
“We are really excited to break a glass ceiling for the LGBT community that has been there for a long time. It would be our top priority in 2012,” Dison said.
EMILY’s List is expected to jump on board as well when Baldwin makes her candidacy official. The group, which works to elect women who support abortion rights, helped raise about a quarter of Baldwin’s $1.5 million in contributions in her first bid for Congress in 1998.
The Human Rights Campaign has more than a million members and supporters nationwide, and it already has a fundraising portal for Baldwin set up on its website.
“If Tammy decides to run for the Senate, we will step up our efforts to get the word out about her record,” HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said. “It’s fair to say that she would have tremendous support just given the historic nature of her candidacy and that she is a credible, electable candidate that people would be really excited about.”
A “Run Tammy Run!” petition flashes on the front page of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund website, part of the group’s effort to encourage Baldwin to run. It plans on sending Baldwin the list of supporters already on board with her campaign, though Baldwin has already said she is likely to be a candidate.
The group endorsed 164 candidates last year from the local to federal levels. With its endorsements, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund offers strategic advice for campaigns, a donation from its political action committee and fundraising bundling. Dison said the group helped bundle half a million dollars for Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who in 2009 became the first openly gay mayor elected in a major city.
“This is at an even higher level than that,” Dison said. “So we’d be looking to rally the LGBT community nationwide to support her campaign.”
What’s unclear is whether that financial support will keep other potential Democratic contenders out of the race. Rep. Ron Kind and former Sen. Russ Feingold have said recently that they will make a decision on the race by the end of the summer.
“The thing about her is, I think she’s doing the necessary research and studying the factors that would go into making a successful run,” Wisconsin-based Democratic consultant Doug Hill said. “The bottom line is, she’s not naive — she wouldn’t run unless she saw a clear path to victory.”
Baldwin’s political team did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the groups expect her to declare her candidacy this summer. As of March 31, she had $709,000 in the bank. That sum is expected to be significantly higher when her second-quarter report is posted Friday.
Beyond the primary, Democrats are facing the increasing likelihood that former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) will run, so the party will need a top-tier candidate to win. Thompson turned down the chance to challenge Feingold last year, but indications in the state are that Thompson is in.
Like many others, though, Thompson is reportedly waiting to see what happens with the state Senate recall elections that begin today. That battle, sparked by a contentious fight with Republican Gov. Scott Walker over labor unions, is sucking up all of the state’s political attention and will offer an indication of each party’s political energy.
Republicans in the state note Baldwin’s voting record is the most liberal in the House and that Dane County Democrats don’t have the best statewide track record. Baldwin is popular in her own territory. She received the most raw votes of any House Democrat in 2010, winning 50,000 more votes than the next-closest Democrat to win last fall.
Katie Belanger, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Fair Wisconsin and a former Baldwin campaign finance director, emphasized that Baldwin’s district is more than just liberal Madison.
“She has some very rural and socially conservative parts of her district that now vote overwhelmingly for her,” Belanger said.
In 1998, Baldwin replaced Republican Scott Klug, who retired after four terms in Congress. At a Madison press conference the day after she was elected, Baldwin recognized that her stature and importance to the LGBT community had been elevated, but she said she preferred to talk about her plans for representing the 2nd district.
“I will be a role model,” Baldwin said. “But I think most importantly I can make an impact by getting to Congress, addressing issues that make an impact in peoples’ daily lives.”
Those issues, such as health care and equal rights, are ones Baldwin has indeed pushed for in her more than 12 years in Congress. Baldwin has been perhaps the strongest advocate for universal health care, and she worked to broaden the definition of hate crimes and workplace discrimination to include acts based on sexual orientation.
In 2008, she joined Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to co-found the LGBT Equality Caucus.
In a brief interview, Frank said he “fully” supports Baldwin’s candidacy, and he demonstrated how closely he has been watching the process by noting that Baldwin had a strong showing in the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention straw poll in June.
“Tammy did very well in a straw poll, and she’s a very strong candidate,” Frank said. “Remember, she took a seat that had been held by a Republican — it wasn’t a gimme seat.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.