Baldwin faces similar challenges in Wisconsin for the seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). She brings all the skills party officials want--strong fundraising, tireless campaigning, and rallying of the base. But she also represents the Midwest's liberal mecca, Madison, and has a voting record to match. She backed labor protests against Gov. Scott Walker. She's a strong anti-war voice. And she is the first and only openly lesbian member of Congress who is at the forefront of fighting for gay rights.
If Republicans sought her conservative equivalent to run--say, someone in the mold of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)--they'd probably be laughed out of the room. But Democrats believe Baldwin can strike a populist tone and connect with labor, and is likable enough that voters will overlook their issue-specific disagreements with her. They cite the success of another liberal maverick, former three-term Sen. Russell Feingold, in Wisconsin as a telltale example.
Still, Democrats made their biggest 2010 gains in the state Senate and in judicial recalls in more-rural parts of the state. Those areas are more culturally conservative, making it debatable whether Baldwin's style will resonate.
In Hawaii, Hirono has national party support in her faceoff with former Democratic Rep. Ed Case, in a race that pits the state party's liberal wing with a more moderate faction. Hirono, the early favorite, consistently ranks in the top tier of the most liberal members in her short tenure in Congress, according to National Journal's vote ratings. That's hardly a disqualifier in the deeply Democratic Aloha State, but the winner goes up against the leading GOP female recruit--the popular former governor Lingle. Case has internal polling showing that nominating Hirono could hand the election to a Republican.
Berkley, running against appointed GOP Sen. Dean Heller, is not quite as liberal as her two counterparts but is a party-line voter in Congress on major legislation. As a favored candidate of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who helped clear her path to the nomination, Berkley doesn't have much room to showcase her independence.
Heitkamp is the one recruit who will campaign as a moderate and distance herself from President Obama. Republicans will focus on her support for Obama's health care law--an issue that played a key role in the retirement of the state's two Democratic senators over the last two election cycles and the defeat of the state's Democratic congressman last year.
Democrats believe this crop of candidates, despite many of their outspoken liberal views, is uniquely positioned to drive the income-inequality message that party strategists believe will be pivotal. However, that bets that biography trumps ideology in 2012.
Image credit: Josh Reynolds/AP