Tammy Baldwin has never run for public office as the lesbian candidate. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 after serving six years in the Wisconsin State Assembly, she has made a name for herself as an unabashed progressive and Democrat, but not as the first out lesbian to ever serve in the House.
So when Baldwin announced in September 2011 she would seek to make history again by becoming the first out lesbian to serve in the Senate, it should not have come as much surprise that she would place little emphasis on her sexual orientation during the campaign.
Her historic run for the Senate has focused almost exclusively on job creation and the economy. Baldwin’s first campaign ad, which launched in June, focuses on the Wisconsin paper industry, sanctions on China and bipartisanship. And in a state that has delivered repeated defeats for key Democratic issues, including electing a governor who has sought to leave unions all but powerless and voting by a 59 percent margin in 2006 to ban same-sex marriage, her strategy appears to be working.
Indeed, the state that elected Scott Walker as governor and sent Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to the House in 1999 appears poised — if the polling is accurate — to elect America’s first out gay senator. And, what’s more, no one in Wisconsin seems to care.
There has been little emphasis on Baldwin’s sexual orientation from her Republican opponent, Tommy Thompson, or from his supporters, providing further evidence that the wedge issue gay rights used to be appears to have lost its edge.
Before Thompson won the Republican primary in August after a heated four-way race, many believed he would pose the greatest threat to Baldwin. Democrats were hoping for a tea-party favorite to secure the nomination. Instead, they got Thompson, a popular former governor who also served as Health and Human Services secretary for President George W. Bush. Although stating he believes ”very strongly” in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Thompson was the only Republican out of the four running in the primary not to endorse a federal amendment to the Constitution banning same-sex marriage.
Thompson is perhaps best known to the public for comments he made in 2007 during a Republican presidential primary debate. Asked if business owners should be allowed to fire their employees for being gay, Thompson said yes.
“I think that is left up to the individual business,” Thompson said. “I really sincerely believe that that is an issue that business people have got to make their own determination as to whether or not they should be.”
Thompson apologized after the debate, stating he misheard the question due to a faulty hearing aid and a need to use the bathroom.
In this campaign, Thompson has made little fuss over Baldwin’s sexual orientation, with only a handful of supporters drawing attention to it.
In September, Thompson’s political director for the campaign, Brian Nemoir, emailed a video of Baldwin dancing in a 2010 gay pride parade.
“Clearly, there’s no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy,” Nemoir wrote in his email, according to wispolitics.com.
His remarks may have been somewhat veiled and restrained, but few mistook his meaning: A lesbian’s values were inherently different from those of heartland voters in Wisconsin.
Nemoir defended the email, saying he acted on his own and that there were more important issues to be discussed in the campaign.
Similar remarks, although more blatantly homophobic, were made in October when Jeffrey Kuhner wrote in the conservative Washington Times under the headline, ”Radical lesbian knocking on Senate door,” that Baldwin’s election would ”mark a watershed for the homosexual movement — and a major blow against traditional America.”
Kuhner went on to chide Baldwin for making no secret of her ”lesbian lifestyle” and labeled her a ”radical feminist” and a ”postmodern socialist.”
While Nemoir was restrained, Kuhner was feverish in his anti-gay rhetoric, which only eight years ago might have seemed mainstream.
Baldwin’s campaign has brushed off the attacks, leaving Thompson in the unfortunate position of having to defend the actions of some of his supporters.
According to Chuck Wolfe, who heads the nonpartisan Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which seeks to increase LGBT representation at all levels of government and has endorsed Baldwin, the tone of Baldwin’s campaign should come as no surprise.
”People don’t run for history,” Wolfe told Metro Weekly during an October interview at Victory Fund’s offices. ”Those are made-up labels that people on the outside throw on the race for the historic nature or for the good story, but they’re not the true race. They’re not what’s really happening on the ground. People in Wisconsin are not making their decision because of Tammy’s sexual orientation.”
Whether Baldwin wins or loses, she will vacate the seat she has held in the House for more than a decade. Mark Pocan, who is out and replaced Baldwin in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1998, is all but assured to win Baldwin’s House seat in the heavily Democratic district.
But Baldwin’s success or failure in Wisconsin will speak to larger issues, not necessarily about how Americans view the sexual orientation of their elected officials, but the direction of the country.
While Thompson has not focused on the fact that Baldwin is gay, he has made much of the fact that she is one of the most liberal members of the House.
There are 33 Senate seats up for grabs Nov. 6, with 21 of those seats currently held by Democrats.
With one Gallup poll showing Congress’s approval rating at just 10 percent – Gallup’s lowest numbers in 38 years of polling – Democrats remain on edge that their slim majority of six senators could be lost. Indeed, control of the Senate could be determined by Wisconsin voters.
For that reason and more, the race could not be more dramatic in its implications.
”You’ve got a young, energetic, successful member of Congress against a retired public official who became a lobbyist, who’s not so young anymore,” Wolfe said of Baldwin and Thompson, respectively. ”Now one happens to be straight and one happens to be a lesbian. Does that get thrown in the mix? Probably for some voters.”
”It’s a classic matchup,” Wolfe adds. ”And she’s winning.”