The Other L Word: Can Tammy Baldwin Win in Wisconsin?

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, emailed 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's openly female? She's already the first female Wisconsin has ever 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 her enthusiastically, and consider the state a high priority. Other backers on the left -- from unions to women's groups to LGBT funders -- love her: she's forthright and fearless about "standing up for the middle class," as she puts it. In one campaign video, she 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 very same record. Consider the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)'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 common-sense, 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 US 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.

Image credit: YouTube/tammybaldwin.com

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E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is a contributing editor and daily columnist at The American Prospect and the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.

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