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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Tammy Baldwin wins Wisconsin's Senate race with progressive values
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Tammy Baldwin had a huge job to do when she set her sights on the Senate seat.
Credit:Phil Ejercito

In so many ways, Tammy Baldwin's victory in the U.S. Senate race was the icing on the cake.

The energy at the Baldwin victory party at Monona Terrace built all night long, as the Democrats racked up wins across the United States. But her win was historic, = as she acknowledged in her victory speech: She is both the first woman Senator from Wisconsin and the first openly gay member of that body.

She adds to the Democrats' majority in the Senate.

And she defied conventional wisdom, winning as an unapologetic progressive in Scott Walker's Wisconsin.

Skeptics in her own party doubted that a relatively unknown liberal from Dane County could beat the formidable Tommy Thompson. The national Republican Party and Karl Rove were so confident about beating her they failed to put their money on Thompson early in the race, thinking he'd win it in a walk.

How did Baldwin do it?

"People underestimated her," John Kraus, communications director for Baldwin's Senate campaign, told me on election night. "And they overestimated Thompson."

Baldwin had a huge job to do when she set her sights on the Senate seat, Kraus points out: "She had to introduce herself to the entire state."

And, at the same time, he notes, "she had to redefine Tommy."

"It's always a fight to define your opponent. But to redefine him is a much steeper hill to climb," says Kraus. "She proved she's a candidate who could do that."

Sure enough, as Mitt Romney went down to defeat, looking like Thurston Howell aboard his sinking yacht, it seemed obvious why Baldwin's message of representing the powerless against powerful interests resonated in this year of economic upheaval.

"When people are struggling, you don't talk down to them. You help lift them up," she said in her victory speech.

Baldwin saw an opening for progressive politics where other people did not. And she ran a brilliant campaign against Thompson. In her ads -- "Tommy, he's not for you anymore" -- she acknowledged people's affection for Thompson, while simultaneously nudging them to see how he had changed. He was now working with Washington lobbyists, getting rich, and representing the health care industry instead of ordinary Wisconsinites.

In a way, it was a perfect summary of the whole nation's transition from the go-go 1990s to the recognition that greed and deregulation have led us to the economic wreck we face today.

And, of course, it helped that Thompson himself looked like a wreck in the debates -- angry, remote, a caricature of the man Baldwin's negative ads portrayed.

"At her core, she could appeal to what voters were really looking for in this election," says Kraus. "Is this a person who is really going to be on my side and fight for me?"

Thompson's charge that Baldwin was "the most liberal member of Congress" was perfectly fair. Her solidly progressive voting record put her to the left of her party for most of her tenure as a U.S. representative since 1998.

She stood for core values that her Democratic colleagues often forgot. She opposed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall banking regulation during the Clinton years. She consistently voted against trade agreements that hurt American manufacturing and shipped jobs overseas. She stood up against the war in Iraq, and was an unabashed proponent of marriage equality. And, yes, she said Obamacare didn't go far enough -- but she embraced it as progress, and even wrote the part of the law that allows adult children to stay on their parents' insurance through age 26.

Then, a funny thing happened in the home stretch of the 2012 election: The national party moved closer and closer to Baldwin.

At the Democratic National Convention, where the auto industry rescue, defending American jobs, protecting the middle-class, marriage equality, and women's rights were the themes of the hour, Baldwin got a prime speaking slot.

President Obama put Baldwin out front again and again as he visited Wisconsin repeatedly in the closing days of the campaign.

Baldwin, Wisconsin progressivism, even our state motto, "Forward!" became key ingredients in the Democrats' national campaign.

In Milwaukee, opening for the president on the Summerfest grounds, Baldwin talked about ending outsourcing and unfair trade with China. Obama seconded that motion.

In her campaign speeches, Baldwin described her philosophy and the philosophy of her party as one of "fairness." Let the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Let gay people enjoy the same marriage rights as every other citizen.

Or, as the president put it the other day in Madison: "I'm not going to kick some poor kids off of Head Start just to give me another tax cut."

It was that progressive message that won the day.

In the Senate, Baldwin joins progressive colleagues Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. They have their work cut out for them, as the backbone caucus of the expanded Democratic majority.

"Make no mistake, I am a proud Wisconsin progressive," Baldwin declared in her victory speech. Then in a warm and gracious gesture, she segued to her opponent.

"I just got off the phone with Tommy Thompson, and he was very cordial and wished me well and wished all of you well," she said.

She told a story about Thompson -- about how, when she first came to the state Legislature at the age of 30, he would light up when he shared bits about her father, whom he knew in college. "That meant the world to me," she said.

It was the embodiment of the Wisconsin value of civility and a willingness to work together.

If the politics of hope and change had a standard-bearer on Nov. 6, it was Tammy Baldwin.

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