Earlier this week, seven-term Rep. Tammy Baldwin said she was “likely” to run for the Senate to become Wisconsin’s junior senator. After all of the strife in Wisconsin this spring, it was welcome news to progressives, who lost longtime Senator Russ Feingold in the 2010 midterm election and who have been in agony since Governor Scott Walker took union workers’ collective bargaining rights away in support of some of his major donors, who include the Koch brothers. What would a run and win for Ms. Baldwin look like, and what could some of the sticking points be?
She may likely be up against a Tea Party-endorsed or very conservative candidate: Again, the Koch brothers have a lot of commercial interests in Wisconsin, and the last several months have been something of a proving ground for Republicans. Brothers Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald, for example (one is the state House Speaker and the other is the Senate State Majority Leader) could decide between themselves who should run. In any case, there will be a lot—and I mean a lot—of money put up against her campaign. But the Democrats really want to win this one; while many of their party’s losses in the 2010 midterms came from places that they’d only held for a few years, the Feingold loss was unexpected, and it hurt. Democrats want to reclaim a Senate seat.
Her campaign will have to interact with all of the efforts to recall state senators: Much of the aftermath surrounding Gov. Walker’s dismantling of collective bargaining involves the electorate getting angry and informed about how to remove elected officials they think aren’t serving the government interest. In the talk about Tammy Baldwin considering a Senate run, nobody seems to be worrying that resources to support her will suck away momentum from the recall drives. It could very well be that the two movements add to each other, if people coming out to vote for Ms. Baldwin decide to also vote to recall their state senator. There have probably already been discussions among Democrats in Wisconsin about how to stage a Senate campaign in the current climate. There will be more.
A Baldwin vs. Conservative GOP election may get very ugly: It is difficult to articulate the level of anger in Wisconsin these days, with residents upset the governor would act so unilaterally, with conservatives riled up about recall petitions and signature collection, and with so much in the Madison newspaper about corruption in state government. I expect Ms. Baldwin to take the high road, at least at first, and talk about re-engaging with government. Both sides may be seeking some kind of retribution of the other, and it will probably boil over as some kind of proxy in the fight for the Senate seat. And yes, someone is going to say something ignorant about Ms. Baldwin’s sexual orientation at some point.
If Tammy Baldwin gets elected to the United States Senate, what then? Well, there are several possible developments:
It won’t be the Barney Frank show anymore: As a fellow Representative, Ms. Baldwin has had to defer to Mr. Frank on more than one occasion, most notably around his yanking of transgender protections in ENDA. But in her own chamber, as the first out LGBTQ elected leader *cough Larry Craig cough* she can introduce her own legislation, and push back on bills that the House—via Mr. Frank—has written by introducing language in the Senate that then gets hammered out in committee. It puts LGBTQ interests in a much stronger position to have an advocate in each chamber, and it is, after all, the Democratic prerogative to do good work by disagreeing with each other. If that disagreement translates to opening up new protections for people, all the better.
Baldwin is a dedicated Representative with a spotless record: Tammy Baldwin has missed one percent of the votes in the House since she took office. She’s been there 99 percent of the time and has never even had an ethics charge against her, much less sent crotch shots of herself in the House gymnasium looking buff. Conservatives may not like her voting record, which is among the more left-wing in the House, but they can’t say she’s not engaged with the issues.
Baldwin will have more power as a Senator: Yes, this is true of anyone in the Senate, because it is a much smaller group of people. But consider this: Tammy Baldwin has introduced 96 bills since taking the oath of office in 1999, and 82 of them have died in committee. Three were enacted, mostly about health issues. She may find better traction for her ideas in the Senate, which requires fewer cosponsors to get noticed.
Baldwin has a history of sticking her neck out for her issues: Just this year she sponsored a resolution to remove the deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s refusal to award 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees damages for unfair wages, what legislation could a Senator Baldwin sponsor to support workers when they make claims against private companies? During her tenure in the House, she’s sponsored bills to support veterans, children, working class women, sexual assault survivors, environmental issues, and people in domestic partnerships. The Senate could use fearlessness like Baldwin’s after their strange need in 2009 and 2010 for a supermajority to feel secure about pushing legislation. Remember the anxiety around filibusters?
Over the next several months, these Senate races will take shape, and whatever mood the public is in will become part of them. If Wisconsin voters stay angry long enough to make it through this election cycle, it will be a bruising, bare-knuckled fight for the Senate. But I can’t think of many people more able to handle that fight than Tammy Baldwin.