How Wisconsin Came To Embrace Gay Politicians

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 19 2012 11:49 AM

Wisconsin Pride

Tammy Baldwin may become the first openly gay U.S. senator. And no one is talking about it.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) waves on stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wi.), candidate for U.S. Senate

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

MADISON, Wis.—Tammy Baldwin is 16 minutes early. The campaign office is already almost full of people who want to meet their candidate for U.S. Senate. Thirty-odd student volunteers, most of them from the University of Wisconsin, sit in chairs and against the walls, decorated by handmade charts that show how many doors they’ve knocked on, by 8 x 11 print-outs of Joe Biden quotes, by a whiteboard decorated with the Obama “O” logo and an inspirational message.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

SMILE! You work for the President + Tammy!

Baldwin has represented this college town in Congress for 14 years, coming there from the state Assembly, coming to the Assembly from the Dane County Board of Supervisors. The locals swear that Baldwin has a photographic memory for voters. I introduce myself. “We met in the student organizing center during the Capitol protests!” she says. “I remember it vividly.” She’s right. I’m inclined to believe the locals.

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It’s three weeks before the election and Baldwin’s narrowly winning a race she was supposed to lose. The Wisconsin seat is being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl, an elfin retail-store tycoon who funded his own campaigns with the slogan “Nobody’s Senator but Yours.” (Republicans liked to shorten that to “Nobody’s Senator.”) The Republican candidate is Tommy Thompson, who won his first election in 1966, and won a fourth and final term as governor in 1998 by a 21-point landslide before becoming George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Six months ago, most projections of a GOP Senate takeover assumed that Thompson would defeat the liberal congresswoman from Madison.

“It’s a closer race than I would have hoped for,” says Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican who beat Russ Feingold in the 2010 wave. “The polls show Tammy Baldwin ahead, and I don’t think anybody was expecting that.”

Thompson is 70 years old and looks it, and has adapted to the YouTube/Twitter era of campaigns with all the grace of Bobby Knight after a foul call. Baldwin is a natural. She’s also a lesbian. And nobody in Wisconsin thinks that’s hurt her. Scott Walker’s state may elect the first openly gay senator in American history, and it’s a total nonissue. It might even be helping Baldwin.

In my long weekend canvass of Wisconsin, I utterly failed to find any voters who factored Baldwin’s sexual preference into their votes. In a state that gave a 59 percent “yes” vote to a 2006 gay marriage ban, there’s no palpable backlash against a well-known gay candidate.

“I don’t think the people of Wisconsin discriminate against anybody, but I think we also hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman,” says Johnson. “I don’t find that contradictory at all. I’d favor civil unions. I have no problem with that.”

At a rally with Joe Biden in La Crosse, retirees Howard and Bernita Sheehan sounded surprised that anybody might ask the question. “It doesn’t come up anymore,” said Bernita. “People have gotten to know gay people. And we have Ellen Degeneres on TV. We have Rachel Maddow.”

Howard felt the same way. He, too, had probably softened his views on gays and gay rights as he got older. “Personally, I don’t care for that gay marriage,” he said. “But that being said, why should I force my viewpoints on other people?”

Democrats, generally, were happy to answer the question but wondered why it was being asked. Republicans simply didn’t know why it might matter. “The person she’s hoping to replace is also of the same persuasion,” says Joyce Smith, a Thompson voter and volunteer in Racine. “I don’t think that matters.” Although it has often been rumored, Sen. Kohl has never claimed to be gay. He even voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. Baldwin’s been out for her entire political career.

In 1998, the year Baldwin won her House seat, the openly gay Marc Pocan ran for her Assembly seat. At the time, a Republican candidate for Assembly cut a radio ad attacking another Democrat for being endorsed by Pocan—warning that “gays from Madison” would be “knocking on the doors” of upstanding citizens. Those ads don’t get made here anymore.

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