Thinking about things, it’s what I do. Why do things happen the way the do, for one thing.
So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been thinking about Tammy Baldwin’s win on Tuesday, becoming Wisconsin’s first female senator and the nation’s first openly gay senator.
When Herb Kohl, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, announced his retirement, it lit a fire under the Republicans. Two years previous, they had just won the other U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin, sending Ron Johnson to Washington. So here was a chance for the Republicans to hold both senate seats, something they hadn’t done since the 1950s. In fact, that seat hadn’t been Republican since Joseph McCarthy, yes that Joseph McCarthy of Commie Witch Hunt fame, died in office. Only two men have held that seat since, William Proxmire from 1957 to until he retired in 1989 and Herb Kohl from 1989 until his retirement when Tammy Baldwin is sworn in this coming January.
The other seat, for perspective, has pretty much alternated Republican and Democrat. But this one, the one Herb Kohl’s retirement would make vacant, that had the Republicans salivating. They hadn’t held that seat since May 2, 1957.
Now was their chance. From out of the woodwork they came. Some of the biggest Republican names in Wisconsin. Jeff Fitzgerald, who became famous here as the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly and one of Governor Scott Walker’s biggest supporters in instituting his policies. Mark Neumann, the former member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Wisconsin’s 1st district and the self-described biggest conservative in Wisconsin. Eric Hovde, businessman, millionaire, and conservative newcomer to politics. And of course, the biggest name in Wisconsin politics, Tommy Thompson, the much loved 42nd governor of Wisconsin who won an unprecedented four terms before joining the Bush Administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The Republican Primary was hard fought, with money spent hand over fist by the candidates and from outside sources. The Republicans, as I said, wanted this seat and they wanted it bad. When the dust cleared, Tommy Thompson stood alone. Maybe not the conservative’s favorite, but as it stood, he the best man to bring that seat back to the Republican fold.
And on the other side, the Democrats seemed to have a lackadaisical attitude about it. Only one candidate stepped forward. Many thought, hoped, it would be Russ Feingold, who had lost his seat two years prior to Ron Johnson. Feingold, the Democrat’s supposed savior and the man who was also wooed unsuccessfully for a run to oppose Governor Walker in the recall election. But no, Feingold was happy out of politics at the moment. He turned them down.
So who would it be? Who would run? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
“I’ll run!” And all the Democrats turned to see … Tammy Baldwin. To most of us, it felt like the Democrats were conceding defeat. Baldwin was relatively unknown outside of Madison and liberal Dane County. Yes, she’d been a Congresswoman for seven terms. But unlike Tommy Thompson or Mark Neumann or even Russ Feingold, she didn’t have name recognition of the sort one would need to win a state-wide election.
So then the punches started to be thrown. On the one side, there was Tommy Thompson, loud, brash, popular, Wisconsin’s favorite son, a millionaire aided by from out of state by the infamous Koch Brothers. More money was thrown at the campaign. Ads dominated television, radio, and stuffed mailboxes to bursting. And even Karl Rove became involved. The Man Who Helped Elect GW Bush. The Republicans had pulled out all the stops to win Wisconsin.
And on the other side we had Tammy Baldwin rose to the challenge and held her own.
It was a classic tale of David and Goliath. A heavyweight fight in which one of the competitors was a welter weight. $75 million was spent on the campaign, $45 million of which came from out of state. It was the most expensive election in Wisconsin history and the fourth most expensive senate race this election. It was also among the most negative campaigns in the country.
Thompson and his millionaire cronies should have mopped the floor with Baldwin, and yet, when it was all said and done and the votes were all tallied, there stood Tammy Baldwin victorious.
If they made a movie of it, no one would believe it. It would smack of melodramatic, sappy sentimentality that the underdog pulled through in the end to defeat the giant experienced political machine of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and Tommy Thompson. But this was real life, and the senate seat held by Democrats since 1957 will continue to be held by them for another six years. And maybe beyond. Maybe, just maybe, we all took Tammy for granted.