Wisconsinites joke that Dane County, which includes Madison, the state capital, is an oasis of liberalism “surrounded by reality.” Baldwin cut her teeth in politics here, and she can bank on its support in the first statewide campaign of her 27-year career. “Reality” is where she runs into trouble. If elected, Baldwin would be the first openly gay senator in the institution’s history. Yet can a gay Madison liberal win over Wisconsinites in the polarized, cash-drenched Scott Walker era?
Voters outside Dane County don’t outright dislike Baldwin (though a few million dollars in super-PAC attack ads could change that). It’s just that few of them know who she is: Ask voters in northern Wisconsin about her, and you’ll get blank stares and shrugs. Thirty-two percent of voters responding to a recent Marquette University Law School poll had never heard of Baldwin. “You’d think that having been a member of Congress for a long time, she’d be known outside her district,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist who oversees Marquette’s polling. “But that’s not the case at all.”
Baldwin’s blue-collar appeal also serves to deflect attacks on her liberal voting record. At Larson Acres, Baldwin reminds me that she introduced the CHEATS Act with Rep. Reid Ribble, a Republican who represents Wisconsin’s eighth district—a rural region where Baldwin needs to make inroads. In March, she cosigned a bill sponsored by conservative firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to a build a new bridge over the St. Croix River linking Minnesota and Wisconsin. And back in her state legislature days, Baldwin co-sponsored campaign finance disclosure legislation with then-State Assemblyman—now Governor and Republican hero—Scott Walker. “Hard to imagine now, isn’t it?” she quips.
Baldwin has less to say about her own story. She first dipped a toe into politics as a Dane County supervisor in the mid-1980s. Her 1992 election as the first openly gay member of the Wisconsin State Assembly catapulted her into the national debate over gay rights, HIV/AIDS, and gays in the military. Six years later she replaced outgoing Republican Scott Klug in the House of Representatives, becoming the first openly gay woman to win a congressional election. A win this November would make history once again.
In the past, Baldwin saw herself as clearing the way for other gay and lesbian politicians. “Sometimes I think my most significant contribution is not the legislative initiatives I introduce, but the stereotypes I shatter,” she told theWashington Times in 1993. She has also stressed that her openness about being a lesbian plays to her advantage. “I would get statements from voters such as, ‘If you can be honest about this, I believe you’d be honest about everything with me,’” she told the Toronto Star in 1995. By now, Baldwin’s sexual orientation is old news in Wisconsin, says Susan Johnson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. “We’re at a point as a state and a country that that’s just not as important of an issue,” Johnson says.
No matter: Baldwin has plenty more to worry about. Her Republican opponent, former governor Tommy Thompson, is as much a household name as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and Thompson has consistently outpolled Baldwin.