After two years of heart-wrenching defeats, capped by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory this summer, Wisconsin Democrats were on an unrelenting losing streak.
And when popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson decided to run for U.S. Senate, Republicans appeared poised for yet another prominent win that would give them control of both Wisconsin’s Senate seats for the first time since the 1950s.
But there was to be no GOP sweep.
President Barack Obama fired up his turn-out machine and made winning Wisconsin a priority, pouring star power and money into the state. All the attention that Wisconsin received, along with a backlash against Republican voter-suppression efforts targeting minorities, young people and other predominantly Democratic groups, led to huge Democratic turnout. In Milwaukee, home to the state’s largest minority population, 87 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Meanwhile, out Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin put together a well-funded, disciplined and smart campaign against Thompson. On the stump and in televised debates, she presented a calm, reassuring and likeable contrast to Thompson’s blustery, old-fashioned hucksterism.
On Nov. 6, both Obama and Baldwin won their races, keeping alive Wisconsin’s tradition as a state that doesn’t stay all blue or all red for too long. The president and senator-elect won by margins wider than most polls had predicted – six and five percentage points, respectively.
The victories were the biggest scores for Democrats since Obama’s surprising 14-point win in Wisconsin in 2008 that left Republicans sullen and confused. The GOP found itself in a similar position Nov. 6.
“We’re all quite stunned at the results because we had such an energized base, the independents were falling our way,” Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of Mitt Romney’s Wisconsin campaign and an avid opponent of equality, choice and environmental protection, told AP. “People were coming out of the woodwork to help. Maybe we were just not dealing with the real reality.”
Democrats, on the other hand, were overjoyed with a measure of success at the top of the ticket that exceeded their dreams.
“I’m feeling positive, full of wonder,” state Rep. Sandy Pasch told WiG at a Democratic election night victory celebration in Milwaukee.
“This is a great night! This is a grassroots win!” enthused Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
State Sen. Chris Larson said if Walker fails to learn from the outcome of the election, “he’ll be on the same path in two years.”
“This is a fantastic victory,” Larson said. “This is a victory for the middle class. Wisconsin is not a red state. The false idea that we are is now proven wrong. We all need to work together.”
Republicans who were searching for a silver lining in the national losses found it with the GOP winning back the state Senate. That returned state government to where it was before a Republican loss in a recall election in June gave the Democrats a narrow one-vote majority in the Senate. The temporary Democratic majority was largely symbolic, since the legislative session doesn’t begin until January.
Republicans also held control of the state Assembly, losing only one seat.
There was no change in the makeup of the state’s U.S. House delegation. Five Republican incumbents, including Mitt Romney running mate Paul Ryan, won re-election, although there were hints of GOP vulnerability ahead. Ryan won with the lowest margin of his career, garnering slightly less than 55 percent of the vote against Democratic challenger Rob Zerban. That’s 20-percent lower than the average proportion of votes Ryan’s won in his previous seven races.
And, in what had to be the most embarrassing result for the GOP in Wisconsin, Obama won Rock County, Ryan’s home district, with 60 percent of the vote.
Republican incumbents Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy also showed future vulnerability by earning 56 percent of the vote in their districts.
The state’s three Democratic-held U.S. House seats stayed in that column but added a new face. State Rep. Mark Pocan took 68 percent of the vote to win Baldwin’s 2nd Congressional District seat, which includes Dane County. An out gay man, Pocan became the first LGBT candidate in history to succeed another out member of Congress.
Like Baldwin, Pocan ran a disciplined campaign that focused on leveling the playing field for the middle class. With the backing of top party leaders, numerous unions and progressive groups, he took an astonishing 72 percent of the vote in a four-way Democratic primary in August to nail down the nomination.
In his victory speech Nov. 6, Pocan emphasized the progressive roots of his district. “This is the district of Fighting Bob La Follette. This is the seat of Bob Kastenmeier. And this is the seat of Tammy Baldwin,” he said. “This is the seat where we expect our representatives to work hard for progressive values and the middle class and lower-income families of Wisconsin, and I will do that.”
Pocan pledged to do his part toward ending gridlock at the U.S. Capitol. “At the end of the day we have one job, and that is to actually get something done. It doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values. But you do need to find compromise. I have done that for my 14 years in the Legislature, and I will do that in Washington with this district.”
“Mark Pocan is the quintessential legislative strategist,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger, who has for years observed his performance in the Assembly, where he rose to prominence as a member of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, playing a leadership role in developing the state budget. He’s widely considered one of Wisconsin’s most effective progressive lawmakers.
“Mark knows how to build relationships across the aisle and he knows how to get things done,” Belanger said. “Mark Pocan is the kind of person you want to have on your side regardless of issues, because he knows how to move legislation.”
Celebrating his victory at Baldwin’s election night campaign headquarters in Madison’s Monona Terrace, Pocan thanked and kissed his husband Phil Frank before a wildly cheering crowd that included a very large number of gays and lesbians. The kiss was an iconic moment for Wisconsin.
“This is the gayest room in the world,” a local gay politico quipped. “I could find a date right now if I wasn’t working.”
Among those on hand at Monona Terrace to watch history unfolding was Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. The fund supported Pocan and ranked Baldwin’s election as its top priority in the 2012 election cycle.
AP called the race for Baldwin at 8:30 p.m. but then retracted the announcement, calling it a mistake. Over the next couple of hours, several news organizations announced Baldwin as the winner and Slate magazine called her victory “the second-biggest win of the night.”
But it wasn’t until 11:15 p.m. that Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate finally took the stage to introduce “the next Senator from Wisconsin.” A cry of jubilation erupted from the crowd, along with chants of “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy.” Baldwin’s supporters were as moved as they were joyous. Tears filled the eyes of many.
In her victory speech, Baldwin focused on her commitment to fairness and the bread-and-butter issues, such as preserving Medicare, which formed the heart of her populist campaign message.
“When people are strug gling, you don’t talk down to them, you reach down and lift them up,” she said in a summation of her belief in the role of government. “We can only move forward if we all move forward together.”
Baldwin made only a passing reference to the historic dimensions of her election, but it drew the loudest applause of the night.
“Now I am well aware that I will have the honor to be Wisconsin’s first woman U.S. senator,” she said. “And I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay senator. But I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference.”
To the rest of the world, however, Baldwin’s gender and sexual orientation embodied progress and engendered hope.
“Last night was a breathtaking leap forward,” Wolfe wrote in a press statement the morning after the election. “Tammy Baldwin shattered a sturdy glass ceiling that’s been in place for more than two centuries. At long last, LGBT Americans will see one of our own take the oath of office in the United States Senate, and I cannot wait for that historic moment.”
Baldwin’s victory occurred exactly 20 years after she was first elected as an openly gay candidate to the Assembly, Wolfe noted.
“With Baldwin, we now have a voice in the Senate,” said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin. “It’s one thing to have allies, but if you don’t have someone who’s part of your community, the conversations are about you instead of with you.”
Burns said Baldwin’s mere presence in Congress’ upper chamber would help to change the hearts and minds of her homophobic colleagues there.
“I think the best way that the LGBT community advances our history is for people to come out and meet LGBT individuals and say, ‘Hey, wow they’re just like me,’” he said. “It makes it much harder for people to say mean things about gay people when there’s a gay person in the room and they like that person.”
Likeability has always been one of Baldwin’s strongest political assets, Burns said.
“She is probably one of the most genuine congresswomen and now Senator-elects that I’ve ever met,” he said. “She’s absolutely wonderful and amazing in all sorts of ways, but the likeability factor is huge for her.”
The Associated Press and Leonard Sobczak contributed to this story.