Voters heard a lot from Wisconsin politicians last week, when vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker, and Republican national Convention Chair Reince Priebus addressed the Republican National Convention. But when Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin took the stage in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday night, she delivered a different message, touting the state’s “proud progressive tradition.”
Baldwin is running for Senate, and she is locked in a tight race with former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has led every poll since he won the Republican primary last month.
The seat currently belongs to retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, and Baldwin’s appearance Thursday illustrates just how badly Democrats want to hold onto it.
“That Democrats feel it’s important enough to have her on the most important night in prime time tells you that they are very determined in trying to hold on to that seat,” noted Joe Heim, Professor of Political Science at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.
But Baldwin is also a perfect fit in a convention that has focused so heavily on women, and social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. The first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin, Baldwin is a lesbian, pro-choice and ranked among the most liberal members of the House by National Journal.
But Baldwin’s role Thursday evening seemed to be that of counterweight to Ryan, Walker and Priebus.
“You’ve heard about Paul Ryan, who wants to end Medicare as we know it,” Baldwin said. “You’ve heard about Scott Walker, who took basic rights away from teachers, nurses and public employees. Maybe you’ve even heard about Tommy Thompson, our former governor, who went to Washington, cashed in on his special interest connections, and never really came back.”
“Well, I’m here to tell you that they don’t speak for all of Wisconsin,” she went on. “I want you to hear about the Wisconsin I know: The place where my grandparents raised me, the place where generations of families have worked hard to get ahead, the place where our state motto might sound familiar to you. It’s just one word: forward.”
Forward, of course, is the slogan for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Where Walker spoke about competition — how his reforms had had helped improve the economy of the Badger State, creating a climate in which businesses felt secure enough to hire people and create jobs, Baldwin spoke about fairness. She touted her support for the Buffet Rule and for regulation on the financial industry, and the importance of a “level playing field.”
On social issues, Baldwin treaded lightly.
She spoke shortly after a veteran took the stage to cheer Obama for abolishing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and just before a young man stood up to talk about being raised by his two lesbian moms. But the woman hoping to become the first openly gay senator kept her sexual orientation almost entirely out of the speech, saying only, “Our president has made historic progress toward equality. He repealed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ so that no American ever again has to lie about who they are in order to serve the country we love.”
The spotlight gave Baldwin an opportunity to introduce herself to Wisconsin voters, and the speech was as much about touting her own accomplishments and positions as it was about the president.
Her first reference to Obama was when she spoke of her own support for the Buffet Rule, saying “President Obama is standing with me.”
The congresswoman is significantly less well known than her opponent — a four-term governor who is known statewide.
But the benefits to her of a prime-time speaking slot will likely be primarily financial.
“This should help her — especially with small dollar donors who see the speech and get excited and go to the website,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
It will also help by “nationalizing the race to some degree — letting people know who she is and why she’s important,” Heim said. That, in turn, could draw more financial support to Baldwin.
On Wednesday, the Thompson campaign attacked Baldwin, saying she was taking her message to a group of like-minded people because it was out of touch with Wisconsin voters.
“There are very few pockets in Wisconsin outside of Tammy’s hometown of the ultra-liberal Madison, Wisconsin where her extreme agenda is going to resonate,” Brian Nemoir, a spokesman for the Thompson campaign, told The Daily Caller. “Therefore, it only makes sense to take her tired act of big government and higher taxes to the select crowd of liberal believers who’ll be watching her speech and think the current path of higher unemployment and a record $16 trillion debt our country is on is the right one.”
After the speech, Republicans continued to take Baldwin to task for being too liberal.
“Tammy Baldwin’s lofty rhetoric aside, it’s important to remember she is even more liberal than President Obama – believing Obamacare didn’t go far enough, seeking to raise taxes on every single American while pushing for a national tax on our nation’s energy producers,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement.
At the moment, Baldwin’s path to the Senate is a hard slog. In a nod to the polls that show her trailing, Rothenberg Political Report changed the race’s ranking this week from a pure toss-up to a toss-up/lean Republican.
Obama, said Doug Usher, pollster for Purple Strategies, is likely to carry the state, but that won’t make it that much easier for Baldwin. Wisconsin is a state where, as Heim said, “we don’t have a lot of coattails.” People tend to “split their votes,” Heim said, voting for a member of one party at the top of the ticket, and a member of a different party further down – which explains why polls show Obama leading Mitt Romney, while Thompson leads Baldwin.
“I would say that if you look at the polling right now, Tammy Baldwin’s got a pretty steep hill to climb to win that Senate race,” said Usher