What makes Tammy Baldwin hard to beat

(First published in the September 27, 2018 issue of City Pages)

She defeated a GOP giant in 2012 to earn her seat in the U.S. Senate. In 2018, her Republican challenger Leah Vukmir faces a steep uphill battle.


Steve Leonard

In 1997, then-State Rep. Tammy Baldwin was been campaigning hard for U.S. Congress when former Dane County Executive Rick Phelps jumped into the race. Phelps was extremely popular — he’d won his last election with 74% of the vote and was being promoted as a challenger to three-term incumbent Gov. Tommy Thompson.

“There was a lot of hubbub around that because he was a very well-known progressive,” says Kate Peyton, who worked as financial director for Baldwin’s congressional campaigns. “He was a very formidable candidate.”

Peyton remembers a moment when they were strategizing at Baldwin’s house in Madison and wondering if the soft-spoken candidate should wait her turn: “Well Tammy, maybe you want to rethink what you’re doing because it’s going to be tough,” she recalls saying.

What Baldwin said next has stuck with Peyton for two decades: “In a very steely way Tammy said, ‘I believe that women have to run especially when it’s hard and not wait our turn. We can’t wait until we get a tap on our shoulder or we’ll never get anywhere.’”

Baldwin won the race against Phelps in a four-way Democratic primary. That November, she defeated Republican Josephine Musser to become the first woman in Wisconsin elected to Congress. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that Baldwin would make history.

She was the first openly gay member of the Wisconsin Legislature. The first openly gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The first woman to be elected a U.S. senator in Wisconsin. And the first openly gay senator in the nation’s history.

In her 2012 race for U.S. Senate (to replace retiring Democrat Herb Kohl), Baldwin ended the political career of the once invincible Tommy Thompson.

For her 2018 reelection campaign, Baldwin is championing the dairy industry and college affordability and fighting to preserve what’s left of the Affordable Care Act. She’s also raising alarm about threats to Medicare and Social Security, and promising to counter the agendas of out-of-state billionaires.

She’s taking these positions at a time when Wisconsin is a lonely place for progressives. She’s one of just two statewide elected Democrats left. In 2016, Donald Trump was the first Republican to win a presidential election here in 30 years.

On paper, Baldwin seems like an easy mark for conservative groups, which have spent millions on attack ads against her. She’s a religiously unaffiliated, peace-loving lesbian born and bred in the socialist swamp of Madison.

So why has Baldwin been hard to beat? For one, she’s more politically astute than many critics realize.

For instance, the senator says that she didn’t let her profound disagreement with Trump keep her from searching for common ground when she met the president with a group of senators in 2016.

“I decided I wanted to focus on Buy American policies. I figured I could use this opportunity hopefully to advance legislation and see if there was common ground to work on something together,” Baldwin recalls. “He expressed support.”

A year later, while visiting Kenosha, Trump also publicly said he backed Baldwin’s Buy American efforts “100 percent.”

Though GOP leaders in Congress have not moved her legislation, she says she hasn’t “given up hope.” (Her proposal was included in one version of a Senate bill but not the House legislation.)

Voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether Wisconsin’s progressive senator gets another crack at it.


Baldwin was sworn in to the state Assembly in 1993, holding her seat for three terms before being elected to Congress in 1998.

Baldwin has always called Madison home. She was valedictorian at West High in 1980, and after studying political science and mathematics at Smith College in Massachusetts, she returned to Madison to attend UW Law School. One year into law school in 1986, Baldwin served a brief stint on the Common Council; when she was 24, she won a seat on the Dane County Board.

Dave Ripp — the last conservative on the county board — is the only supervisor left who served with Baldwin during her four terms. Although he won’t be voting for Baldwin, Ripp says they worked well together.

“At that point in time, Tammy would work with all sides,” says Ripp. “I sort [supervisors] into the talkers and the doers. She wasn’t one to talk to just hear herself talk — like some. So yeah, she was a doer. We got along fairly well.”

In 1992, Baldwin won a state Assembly seat. Former state Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison) served with Baldwin and remembers her being “excellent at broadening a coalition.”

“She was good at reaching out and persuading [lawmakers] who wouldn’t fall right into place on an issue. She was able to form genuine relationships with people who were not necessarily inclined to agree with her,” says Black. “People have always underestimated Tammy. But the truth is, she’s very effective.”

During her seven terms in the House of Representatives, she voted against the USA Patriot Act, criticized the Iraq war and voted against repealing Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that regulated commercial and investment banking for more than half a century. Baldwin has been advocating for a universal healthcare system since the early 1990s and co-sponsored the “Medicare for All” bill in 2017. She called bipartisan trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership “unfair.”

Her support of Wisconsin’s dairy and manufacturing industries may have won her unexpected allies and foes. U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Glenbeulah) says while meeting with Wisconsin foundry owners recently, he was dumbstruck to hear that Baldwin sided with them on a regulatory issue.

“I said something assuming that Tammy wouldn’t be on their side. But, ‘Oh no,’ they said. ‘Tammy did all we wanted. She’s a good friend of the foundries,’” says Grothman. “Would you have guessed that Tammy Baldwin would be a ‘good friend’ of the foundries? It surprised me.”

To the dismay of some environmentalists, Baldwin also joined Wisconsin’s senior Sen. Ron Johnson in cosponsoring a bill to delist gray wolves in the Great Lakes from the Endangered Species Act. The senator also caught shade from vegan activists for proposing the Dairy Pride Act, which would prohibit almond, soy and other plant-based beverages from using the word “milk.” The animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere disrupted a 2017 Milwaukee town hall meeting hosted by Baldwin over her bill. One protester questioned Baldwin’s lefty cred: “In keeping with the progressive values that you demonstrate in other areas, how about working instead for those who have no power in this issue?… The dairy cows.”

Visiting a dairy farm is an “awesome thing to do,” Baldwin responded. “I am open to the perspective that you’re sharing… But right now, I have no apologies about the Dairy Pride Act.”

Out-of-state conservative advocacy groups started airing attack ads against Baldwin last year. According to her campaign, outside interest groups by August spent almost $15 million on this race. “Huge expenditures on nasty attack ads by the Koch brothers network and Richard Uihlein,” says Baldwin. “It was stunning to see outside groups, that represent powerful interests, attack so early on.”

Baldwin has a far bigger war chest than her Nov. 6 opponent, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir of Brookfield. Campaign financial disclosures as of July 25 show Baldwin had raised $22.6 million and spent $16 million; Vukmir, who faced a robust primary race in August, raised $2 million and spent $1.6 million.

So far, Baldwin is holding her own in the polls. The pre-primary July 27 poll conducted by NBC News/Marist College Poll had Baldwin 17 points ahead of Vukmir. The most recent Marquette Law School poll from Sept. 18 put Baldwin 11 points in front of Vukmir (53% to 42%).

Baldwin’s healthy campaign war chest and poll showings aside, the incumbent is facing a continuing onslaught of outside spending on Vukmir’s behalf, especially in parts of the state outside Madison.

“The Koch Brothers and the other right wing billionaires know it’s counterproductive to do an ad blitz in Madison,” says Black. “In other media markets, Tammy is being absolutely slammed.”

Vukmir sent out a newsletter in May showing a picture of herself and CIA director Gina Haspel — whose nomination Baldwin voted against — with a “Team America” label. Baldwin is shown on the “Team Terrorist” side Photoshopped next to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who helped orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Stars and Stripes Forever PAC ran radio spots targeting African Americans claiming Baldwin “is a big reason why” one out of three aborted babies in America are black.

That same PAC — formed to support Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign — also released an ad in April accusing Baldwin of requiring American schoolchildren to learn things that are “often untrue,” including that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same god. “Liberal Democrats like Tammy Baldwin support teaching about Islam,” says the narrator. “After all, if our kids think all religions are the same, they aren’t likely to choose any of them.”

Baldwin’s campaign has been more upbeat, and even chipper. One spot opens with kids in a barn announcing “this is a going to a very cheesy ad.”

“When federal bureaucrats wanted to prohibit the use of wooden cheese boards —which help make tens of thousands of pounds of cheese a year—something had to be done,” Baldwin says in the ad. It then shows a cheesemaker saying Baldwin “stood up for businesses like ours.”

Another Baldwin ad features workers from a Beloit-based marine engine manufacturer, thanking the senator for her “Made in American Shipbuilding Act that makes sure ships built for our armed forces are made here in the U.S.”

You don’t hear Baldwin making many attacks against Trump or the Republican Party — at least by name. Wisconsin’s junior senator is more apt to say she’s standing up against “powerful special interests.” When she needs to fire up the base (and maybe court some independents), she turns to the hugest bomb-thrower on the left: 76-year-old U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont.

The ballroom at the Lismore Hotel in Eau Claire was filled to capacity on July 14. Baldwin was warmly greeted with applause and some “Tammy, Tammy” chants when she came on stage.

“Washington is working for some. It’s working well for folks with powerful connections: the special interests. Time and time again, they call the shots to keep the system in their favor. And that’s what’s at stake this year,” Baldwin told the crowd of about 1,000. “I’ll sit down with anyone — regardless of party — to get the job done.”

While Baldwin was well received, Sanders blew the roof off the place. He’s noticeably louder than Baldwin, both in volume and rhetoric. Baldwin’s criticism of opponents is focused on the issues. Sanders goes for the jugular.

“It’s such a disservice to our country that we have a president who is a pathological LIAR,” booms Sanders. “Trump says it was a ‘sign of strength’ to tear little babies away from the arms their mothers. I say to President Trump, that’s not an indication of strength. It’s an indication of moral weakness!”

Some in the crowd, like Adolph King from Seymour, were there mainly to see Bernie. King voted for Sanders in the primary, but then Trump in the general election. He’s unsure who he’ll support for senator. But his partner, Karen King, is on team Tammy. She worries about the renewed threat to legalized abortion with a Trump appointee about to be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court.

This was Selika Ducksworth-Lawton’s first political rally. The Baldwin campaign called and invited her to the event. “People in the north feel neglected,” she says. “We feel like nobody pays attention to us. We feel like the resources have been sucked out of us.”

Terry, who declined to give his last name, says he respects Baldwin’s civility. “I was taught that you don’t lie. You don’t say bad words. You don’t talk bad about people,” says the Eau Claire man. “Tammy shows consistent good behavior. Hard to believe that’s an asset nowadays, but it is.”

Republicans were warned by Congressman Paul Ryan — who was chummy with Baldwin since they frequently flew to Washington on the same flights — not to be fooled by Baldwin’s reputation as a shy policy wonk, says Karin Johanson, who was Baldwin’s campaign manager in 2012. Republicans didn’t listen.

“They don’t understand her appeal. She is very soft-spoken. She’s also very Wisconsin. So sometimes you don’t realize what a good politician she is,” says Johanson. “She knows how to speak to all sorts of different people because at the end of the day, they are of Wisconsin and she is, too. People in Wisconsin are very proud of their state.”

Johanson says Baldwin is not a typical politician. “Tammy is a very serious person… She has the intellectual capability to be anything she wants to be. She’s a workhorse.”

“Leah Vukmir said a bunch of crazy stuff that’s totally untrue. Tammy would never say anything like that about anyone,” adds Johanson. “She goes about her business. She disagrees on policy and makes that clear.”

During her bid for U.S. Senate in 2012, Baldwin launched a series of ads that highlighted Thompson’s career as a lobbyist after his tenure as governor. The catch lines on a few ads were “Tommy Thompson: he’s not for you, anymore.”

The ads came right after an exhausting primary that Thompson was not expecting and he was unable to counter Baldwin’s message.

“They can try to make her into a caricature but it just doesn’t work. Her response is all the things she’s done for the state of Wisconsin. That’s what we did in 2012. I know that’s what she’s doing now,” Johanson says.

Marquette political science professor Julia Azari says a strong turnout of the base is essential for both Republicans and Democrats in November. But winning over fickle voters may put Baldwin over the top. “It does seem like there are these pockets in Wisconsin where people voted for Bernie in the presidential primary and then Trump in the general election,” says Azari. “How many people voted for Obama and then Trump?”

Baldwin doesn’t shy away from her progressive roots. But in 2018, the senator isn’t singing her liberal bona fides from the rooftop, either.

Meanwhile, Vukmir, who has served in the Legislature since 2002, firmly aligned herself with President Trump leading up to the August primary against Kevin Nicholson. During a July 27 primary debate in Milwaukee, Vukmir said, “I applaud President Donald Trump for saying, ‘You know what, I want to put America first. I don’t want people coming into this country if they are going to be a threat to our security and a threat to our Americans.’… He’s doing the right thing and I stand with him.”

Johanson says it makes sense that in the GOP primary, Vukmir ran a “very, very conservative” race. But with the November 6 general election, “She will have to turn around and appeal to independent-leaning people. I’m not sure how she does that at this point. Baldwin has a lot of [independents] already. Leah Vukmir needs to peel them away,” says Johanson.

Johanson also points out that, “the Republicans have been going negative on Tammy Baldwin for a year. They don’t seem to be making much progress. Leah is going to have to say something new.”

Unlike in 2012, Baldwin won’t have President Obama at the top of the ticket. However, historically the opposition party fares well in the midterms.

Baldwin doesn’t deny that Wisconsin has become politically polarized. Even so, she believes she can continue to win over independents and even some Republicans by focusing on policy.

Dylan Brogan is a writer for the Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus, where a version of this article first appeared.