In 1998, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay candidate to be elected to Congress as a nonincumbent, winning a seat representing liberal Madison, Wis., in the House of Representatives. Now the leading candidate to become the Democratic nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Baldwin would become the first "out" U.S. senator in American history if she wins election in November 2012.
And in a kind of triumph for the gay-rights movement, it turns out that "lesbian" isn't the "L" word most likely to be used against her in a race against either of the two likely Republican opponents, Mark Neumann or Tommy Thompson. In Wisconsin, the fighting "L" word these days is "liberal" -- and, observers say, that's the territory on which she will win or lose her race.
For Wisconsin's voters, the question of who Baldwin loves likely will disappear behind the question of how she legislates. In a week of reporting, I couldn't find anyone who thinks that her well-known sexual identity, such old news, will get any play whatsoever. Not the Wisconsin news media. Not the academics who study politics. Not the professional Democrats. Not the professional Republicans. Not the local or national LGBT organizers.
With Wisconsin having just endured a bruising battle over union rights to collectively bargain in the state -- along with hard-fought recall campaigns against state senators who supported their repeal -- the political culture in this swingiest of swing states, population 5.5 million, is even more divided than usual. That creates a perfect opening for a candidate like Baldwin, who is firmly on one side of the political divide. And that's what she'll most likely be attacked for, too, by an emboldened conservative movement that has successfully beat back liberal organizing attempts in the Badger State.
Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist who writes for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' Smart Politics blog, says he can't imagine anyone attacking Baldwin as a lesbian, "unless people use that as proxy for how liberal she is." That's an entertaining twist on the old code attack of "San Francisco liberal" -- which once stood in for everything gay.
In fact, every one of more than a dozen people interviewed said that any focus on Baldwin's sexual orientation would backfire, no matter who's doing the emphasizing or why. "Whose votes would that change?" one observer asked me, not for attribution. "The Religious Right -- were they going to vote for her anyway? I just don't see it getting anyone anywhere." But if she is promoted as a potential historic "first," that could turn voters away, since voters are looking to elect a senator from Wisconsin to help them through their tough economic times, rather than to make a social statement.
Should she win, Baldwin would not be the first openly LGBT candidate to win a statewide office, though none has won top political jobs and none has won statewide seats in the Midwest. According to Denis Dison of the Victory Fund, an LGBT version of Emily's List, six people have won posts that required victory outside of gay enclaves or liberal districts -- and all in states at the country's edges. Kevin Lembo is currently Connecticut's comptroller; Ed Flanagan was Vermont's auditor. Oregon now has three elected-while-out officials, with Kate Brown as secretary of state, and Virginia Linder and Rives Kistler now on the Oregon Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, transgendered Kim Coco Iwamoto won a statewide election to be commissioner of education.
But the two biggest statewide prizes -- governor and U.S. senator -- have yet to be won by anyone openly gay. The key word, of course, is "open." Perhaps the most notably "closed" official was former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, a heterosexually married man who resigned in 2004 when he was forced to admit he was having an affair with a man. (Do not doubt that there are more, keeping their loves quiet.) But if Baldwin succeeds, a new barrier to LGBT full political participation will have fallen.
Baldwin has aced this test before. Dison of the Victory Fund says that she followed the model that they counsel for all out candidates: Straightforwardly acknowledge being gay and return the focus to the campaign's main issues. What wins is steadily returning the focus to the race's issues -- message discipline, that time-honored requirement for all political campaigns. Treat one's sexual orientation as a politically irrelevant fact, in other words, and poof, it is so.
Targeting a candidate for being gay does happen -- but it can backfire even in unlikely places. For example, in Houston, when out candidate Annise Parker ran for mayor, Dison says, "a group spent tens of thousands of dollars on a mailer that was blatantly antigay. It featured a picture of her, her spouse, and her kids, and asked: 'Is this what you want Houston's first family to look like?' " Parker is now Houston's mayor.
And so folks on both sides told me, very unofficially, that they're looking to downplay the issue and are working to keep even the most unofficial sympathizers or third-party groups from making it a big deal. The Baldwin campaign, when I asked for comment, e-mailed that they didn't have enough staffers yet to respond.
So what about Baldwin's other groundbreaking potential: the possibility of being elected the first Wisconsin senator who is openly female? She is already the first female whom Wisconsin has sent to Congress -- and so that too will probably fade behind the bigger issue of political philosophy. It might even get her underestimated -- and will certainly bring in additional support from national women's groups, including her early endorser and longtime backer EMILY's List.
National Democrats are set to back Baldwin enthusiastically, and they consider the state a high priority. Other backers on the left -- from unions to women's groups to LGBT funders -- love her: She is forthright and fearless about "standing up for the middle class," as she puts it. In one campaign video, Baldwin specifically touts her original opposition to the Iraq war and her opposition to dismantling the Glass-Steagall Act --which "could have avoided the mess we're in today." Explained EMILY's List Deputy Communications Director Jess McIntosh, "That kind of passion and candor is very attractive to our members. Our folks supported her in her initial run for the House. They're wild about the fact that she's running for Senate."
Republicans, for their part, are salivating to attack her on that same record. Consider the National Republican Senatorial Committee's official statement when Baldwin entered the race: "In the years she's already spent in Washington, Tammy Baldwin has been an avowed supporter of job-killing tax hikes, reckless deficit spending, and out-of-control debt. We look forward to the clear contrast this race will provide between an extreme Madison liberal versus a commonsense, pro-jobs, and fiscally responsible Republican candidate."
Here's how Craig Gilbert puts it in his Wisconsin Sentinel-Journal political blog:
If Republican Mark Neumann and Democrat Tammy Baldwin win their party nominations for U.S. Senate next year, the choice for Wisconsin voters would be as stark as it gets.
Baldwin has the most liberal congressional voting record of any Wisconsin lawmaker in the last 40 years, according to one respected academic rating system.
And guess who owns the most conservative record?
Neumann, who served two terms in the U.S. House in the 1990s.
Ellen Foley, former editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, pointed out that the state's economic losses are exceptionally high, with median household income down 14.9 percent in the past decade, well ahead of the national drop of 8.9 percent. She said that, with most of the state lined up on one side or the other already, the Senate race will be decided by a margin of roughly 10,000 independents who vote not on party but on personal character.
Foley said she couldn't imagine what she termed Baldwin's "personal choices" -- i.e., being gay -- would be held against her. "Tammy is known in our state as a person of character," Foley told me. "She is someone who sticks to her guns and who is well loved by her constituency. She is a very Wisconsin person, friendly, extremely nice. We are very nice people here. We return our library books on time. We pay our taxes. She is one of us."
Baldwin will rise or fall based on her ideas and actions. Whatever happens in Wisconsin's Senate race, that alone is an LGBT victory.