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 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.

Today, Pocan is running for Baldwin’s House seat and winning it easily. (The redistricted WI-02 gave 69 percent of the vote to Obama-Biden in 2008.) It will probably become the first seat to be represented by two gay members in a row. Between the election and his swearing in, Pocan will celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary. We meet up at Fair Trade Coffee, near the local Obama for America/Baldwin campaign office.

“Fourteen years ago, when I ran for office, if there was an article about me someone would write ‘dead faggot’ across my face and send it to my home,” says Pocan. “Things like that. People like Ralph Ovadal—he’s this guy who runs a church out of an old machine shed building—would come over and leaflet my home. And now it’s almost a nonissue. I was in Lafayette County the other day. You can’t buy a pair of pants in Lafayette County. There are no street lights. And I went to go speak to a group in Lafayette County, the Democrats down there, and I saw a woman with a PFLAG sticker.”

It’s more than a nonissue. There’s no upside for the Republicans who talk about it. In early September, Thompson’s political director sent out an email with video of Baldwin dancing at a gay pride parade. “Clearly, there is no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy,” he wrote. Thompson promised to demote him. It’s not clear whether or not he actually did. Just as importantly, though, the Baldwin campaign blew off the story, letting Thompson get sucked into a media shame cycle.

“This is the time of year we usually start seeing people getting hit with anonymous fliers and smears in the mail,” says Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, who promotes gay candidates. Baldwin, in her first Assembly race, was one of the first endorsees; the PAC has given $16,400 to her Senate campaign. “This year has been remarkable for the absence of that.”

After President Obama finally admitted the obvious and announced his support for gay marriage, Democrats waited for the downside. It didn’t come. There was no notable dip in the president’s polling. There was, however, a spike in donations from gays who were holding out until the president “evolved.” This year, as in all of her re-elect years, Baldwin has collected checks from donors who see her as a rising gay star. The congresswoman’s 2000 opponent even ran ads that portrayed a woman, meant to look like Baldwin, hoarding money bags labeled “New York City” and “West Hollywood.” That would be hard to play in 2012, when millions of dollars worth of ads from outside groups like American Crossroads and the Emergency Committee for Israel are keeping Thompson in the game. And why even go there?

“One of the most positive transformations in American politics is that a candidate’s sexual orientation is no longer the issue it may have once been,” says the Human Rights Campaign’s Michael Cole-Schwartz. “Tammy’s not pigeonholed as a gay candidate because her message is so much broader, and you haven’t really seen efforts to marginalize her.”

In Madison, among the students, I hear the first subtle references to Baldwin’s sexual preference. A warm-up speaker says that electing her to the Senate will “make history.” Laura Gladstone, a grad student who’s signed up for extra canvassing, says it’s “super exciting” to have a hand in, possibly, electing the first gay senator.

“I was with Russ Feingold about two or three weeks ago,” says Baldwin. “We were having a fundraiser for me in Milwaukee. And everyone was acting a little cautious. So Russ got up and said: ‘Have you guys forgotten what it feels like to be winning? We’re winning here!’ Everybody started squaring their shoulders and puffing out their chests. I’ve stolen that line. I think people can taste this one.”