The opportunity for Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to become a U.S. senator in the wake of an announcement that a Senate seat will be open in 2012 to represent Wisconsin has LGBT advocates pushing her to pursue higher office.
Baldwin, who has been serving in the U.S. House since 1999 as the only out lesbian in Congress, is likely to pursue a run for the seat, according to the Rothberg Political Report. The Wisconsin lawmaker’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on the reporting.
In a statement, Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Baldwin’s run for U.S. Senate would be a “top priority” for his organization.
“This would be a remarkable milestone for LGBT Americans,” Wolfe said. “Congresswoman Baldwin is one of the most admired public officials I know. She would have the strong support of those who want to see our economy work for all Americans, and who believe that all voices deserve a place at the table.”
Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, said an official announcement from Baldwin that she’d pursue a Senate seat would be “an exciting day for Wisconsin.”
“Tammy has a few things,” Belanger said. “First of all, she is a tireless advocate for progressive values and she is a very, very strong leader who’s willing to stand up for what she believes in. At the same time, she’s also very willing to dialogue with people on both sides of the aisle and willing to come up with solutions that bring people together.”
The opportunity for Baldwin to become a U.S. senator — and the first person in the U.S. Senate to identify as LGBT — became apparent Friday when four-term Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Pursuing a run for Senate would be more challenging for Baldwin than previous runs because she’d no longer be an incumbent and she’d have to win majority support among the electorate in her entire state as opposed to her own Democratic-leaning House district.
The news of Kohl’s retirement prompted the Rothberg Political Report to move the Senate seat in the 2012 election temporarily from “Safe Democrat” to “Lean Democrat” until more potential candidates become known.
Despite the challenge that Baldwin could face, recent events in Wisconsin could tilt the odds of winning a Senate seat in her favor.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) agenda, which has included a restriction on collective bargaining rights of state workers, has energized Democrats in Wisconsin. Baldwin was vocal in her support for the union rights during the debate and could capitalize on her visibility during the often heated discussion in her pursuit of higher office.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said forecasting whether Baldwin could win in the race is difficult at this point because the 2012 election is still more than a year away.
“It is so early that it’s hard to handicap the race without knowing the nominees, or how well or poorly President Obama is running for reelection in the fall of 2012,” Sabato said. “This may be yet another Senate contest decided by the results of the presidential contest in the state.”
Still, Belanger said she thinks Baldwin would be an “incredibly viable” candidate in a race for a Senate seat because of the lawmaker’s history of success in her House district.
“It’s about a third urban, a third rural and a third suburban — and in the last election cycle, she won overwhelmingly in a year that was really difficult and tough for Democrats all across the country,” Belanger said. “I think that really demonstrates that she’s able to go into traditionally difficult parts of the state for Democrats and for progressives and really build a strong base of support.”
Exactly who Baldwin would face during her potential run remains in question. On the Democratic side, Russ Feingold, who lost his U.S. Senate seat in the 2010 election, has been named as a potential contender for the Democratic nomination.
Sabato said other potential Democratic candidates — including Baldwin — would yield if Feingold threw his hat in the race.
“The right of first refusal for the Democratic nomination almost certainly goes to Russ Feingold,” Sabato said. “It’s hard to imagine Tammy Baldwin or other major Democrats standing in the way of Feingold’s attempt to return to the Senate, should he choose to do so. Feingold retains great popularity among Democrats in Wisconsin and around the nation.”
Other potential Democratic candidates that have been named include Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Steve Kagan, a former House member who was ousted during the Republican wave in the 2010 election.
Republican contenders who could run include Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, who stated opposition to same-sex marriage in his bid to become head of the Republican Party before taking the position.
Another GOP contender is House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who gained notoriety after he introduced a controversial alternative budget to President Obama’s plan for fiscal year 2012. Ryan’s measure, which was approved by on the House floor last month, would have eliminated the stimulus package approved in 2009 and defunded Medicare.