Plenty of "L" words will be used to describe Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin's closely watched Senate race - "liberal," "left," "labor" - but "lesbian" is not likely to be one of them.
If Baldwin wins, the seven-term Congresswoman would be the nation's first openly gay Senator. But to date, the race that could decide the balance of the Senate has steered clear of social issues - including Baldwin's sexual orientation. That is why an email last week from her opponent's political director questioning her "heartland values" and featuring a video of Baldwin at a 2010 gay pride parade caught so much attention.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has publicly distanced himself from the email, which was fired off from an official campaign account in response to Baldwin's speech last Thursday at the Democratic National Convention. Thompson told reporters Tuesday he "thought it was a mistake" and that his aide "shouldn't have done it."
The incident, however, underscores the difficulties Republicans could face if they, or anyone else with enough money to run ads, try to make sexual orientation an issue in the race. Baldwin always has run as an openly gay candidate, beginning with her successful state Assembly bid in 1992. And the American public is evolving in its views of the gay community. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found last month that 64 percent of the state's voters are open to supporting a gay candidate for office.
"Let's be clear here, Tammy Baldwin is a lawmaker who happens to be lesbian. She is not a lesbian lawmaker," said Fred Sainz, the vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.
Sainz, who said the HRC is paying particular attention to Baldwin's race, noted that candidates or campaign surrogates who try to use their opponents' sexual orientation against them do so "at their own peril because we are in a period of great transition in this country in terms of how people think about gay and lesbian equality" and that Thompson's distancing himself from his aide was "certainly a measure of progress."
But just because Republicans aren't highlighting Baldwin's sexual orientation doesn't mean they're not trying to paint her as an out-of-touch outsider from the most liberal city in the state.
Nearly every statement released by Republicans refers to Baldwin as "Extreme Madison Liberal Tammy Baldwin," mostly in reference to her voting record being among the most liberal in the House.