Five months after Wisconsin’s unsuccessful recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Democrats did better in another nationally watched statewide contest: Rep. Tammy Baldwin fought past former Gov. Tommy Thompson for the open seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. In an unrelentingly negative race, the two candidates squabbled over everything from Thompson’s investments to who cared more about the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Baldwin grew up in Madison, where she was raised by her mother, a University of Wisconsin student when Tammy was born, and her maternal grandparents, a UW biochemist and the theater department’s head costume designer. She graduated first in her class at Madison West High School and went on to Smith College and UW law school. In 1986, at age 24 and still in law school, she was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors. In 1992, she was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly.
Six years later, when moderate Republican Scott Klug honored his promise to serve only four terms in the U.S. House, Baldwin got into the race, along with three other Democrats and six Republicans. As a woman who favored abortion rights, she was supported by EMILY’s List, which helped raise about one-quarter of her $1.5 million campaign chest. Baldwin won with 37 percent of the vote, then beat former state Insurance Commissioner Jo Musser in the general election. Having come out as a lesbian during her college years, Baldwin became the first openly gay nonincumbent to win a seat in the House.
Baldwin’s voting record consistently has been one of the most liberal in the House. She holds a coveted seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, but with the chamber in Republican hands, her ability to accomplish many of her progressive goals has been limited. She has been sharply critical of many GOP proposals, including the controversial budget blueprint of Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsin resident, and Walker’s equally controversial proposal to limit collective-bargaining rights for many state workers, the issue that touched off the recall.
Baldwin’s driving issue has been guaranteed health care for all Americans. She supported the Democrats’ 2010 overhaul of the health insurance system even though it dropped a government-run “public option” to compete with private insurers, a provision she favored. She has also been at the forefront of the opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriages. In 2008, she and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank created the House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equality Caucus. An outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, she signed on as a cosponsor of Democrat Dennis Kucinich’s 2007 resolution to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney for “deceptive actions leading up to the Iraq war” and other suspected crimes.
The absence of a primary and the hiatus forced by the recall election kept the focus off Baldwin early in the political season, giving her ample time to organize her campaign and raise money. Thompson, meanwhile, had to first get past three more-conservative GOP candidates. Nevertheless, polls showed him with an early lead over Baldwin in the general-election campaign, prompting her to move quickly. She and her allies outspent Thompson and his backers by 3-to-1 in the weeks after the primary.
Baldwin ran a disciplined race, seeking to convince voters that she would be more attuned to the needs of Wisconsin than the 70-year-old Thompson, a former Health and Human Services secretary under George W. Bush who hadn’t been a candidate for office in 14 years. She downplayed her liberal views in favor of taking populist stands against China’s trade policies and highlighting her work across the aisle. Her Democratic allies relentlessly portrayed Thompson as a Washington insider making money through his political connections.
Thompson and Republicans sympathetic to his candidacy accused Baldwin of being a radical, with his campaign releasing an ad citing her 2006 vote against a resolution honoring victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Baldwin explained her vote by saying that Republicans had added provisions commending other policies that she opposed, such as the USA Patriot Act. Her campaign fired back with an ad of its own, accusing Thompson of profiting off the victims. One outside analysis of both campaigns’ ads found that over a 30-day period, 99 percent were negative.
In the end, the moderate Thompson’s attempts to appear more conservative—he told a tea party group that he wanted to “do away with the Medicare and Medicaid,” a departure from his previous positions—rang hollow with voters.