FRIENDSHIP, Wis. — Rep. Tammy Baldwin stood in the Friendship Cafe, giving voters a populist pitch for why she should be elected to keep Wisconsin’s open Senate seat in Democratic hands, where it’s been for the last 55 years.
When she began to field questions, a 70-year-old retiree offered the first comment, and hit on one of the most difficult issues confronting Baldwin as she tries to break the Democrats’ recent losing streak in the battleground state.
For Baldwin, the first openly gay candidate elected to Congress, questions about her sexuality evoke her reputation as an unabashed liberal and a product of left-leaning Madison, and reinforce concerns about her viability in the more conservative parts of the state she’ll need to win the seat in November.
“I ran into all kinds of people who thought Obama was a Muslim,” said Davis, a Democratic activist from nearby Adams, adding that he’s worried Baldwin will struggle to get votes beyond Dane and Milwaukee counties, the more liberal parts of Wisconsin.
With Baldwin running unopposed in the Democratic primary, attention has been focused on the GOP field, where four Republicans are vying for their party’s nod to succeed retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat. Leading the pack is former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is trying to shake off accusations from his challengers that he’s not conservative enough while also positioning himself to win the general election in a state President Barack Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008.
But she’s far less known in the rest of the state, where the party desperately needs to build support among swing voters. And Baldwin’s Democratic agenda will be tough to sell to a divided electorate that has repeatedly rejected many liberal ideals in the aftermath of the Great Recession.