Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is seeking to become the next U.S. senator from Wisconsin, is warning supporters that the path to victory won’t be easy.
Baldwin (D-Wisc.), who declared her candidacy for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, described the challenge of her bid to become to first openly gay U.S. senator during a conference call Wednesday with LGBT media.
“What I do want everyone to know is this will be a very tough campaign,” Baldwin said. “Wisconsin is a deeply and evenly divided state. You’ve seen us go and back forth. You’ve seen Wisconsin come alive in the past few months in opposition to a group of state leaders who are not listening to the concerns of the people. But I think voters are going to hear me out and come to know that I am going to be a fighter.”
First up for Baldwin during the campaign: touring Wisconsin to listen to concerns and build name recognition among her potential constituents.
“In the months ahead, as I did over the past summer, I’m going to be traveling the state, meeting with people in their homes and workplaces,” Baldwin said. “You certainly know I’m well-known in the House district that I represent, but there are parts of Wisconsin where I have to go around and introduce myself.”
In the time she has spent speaking with voters, Baldwin said she has heard from people “again and again just how disgusted they are” with what’s happening in Washington.
“It’s clear to all of us that the middle class is getting completely slammed both in this economic environment and in this political environment,” Baldwin said. “I think we as the LGBT community can really understand the concerns we feel when we think our leaders aren’t taking our genuine challenges and struggles to heart.”
Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, praised Baldwin during the conference call and said her bid for the Senate will be “an important race of our community.”
“The Victory Fund endorsed Tammy in her first state legislative race back in 1992,” Wolfe said. “She hasn’t lost a race. We hope we are able to help her continue that success rate all the way through 2012.”
The first major hurdle for Baldwin will be a Democratic primary challenge in September 2012. Both Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and former Rep. Steve Kagen have been named as possible contenders, although Baldwin at this point is the only announced Democratic candidate.
But polling has shown Baldwin to be ahead of both Kind and Kagen. During the conference call, Baldwin noted she voted in 2002 against the Iraq war resolution and in 1999 against the repeal of a financial regulation law known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which some say led to the financial crisis of 2008. Kind voted in favor of both measures.
“People will also recognize that I have a lifetime commitment to equality for all,” Baldwin said. “And I think they’ll learn that I’m not afraid to stand up to big and powerful interests.”
Asked whether she thinks she’ll have a Democratic opponent, Baldwin said, “I have no idea, but I’m prepared for any eventuality.”
Polls have shown that Baldwin is the front-runner in a Democratic primary, but the situation is different during the general election. Both former Gov. Tommy Thompson and announced U.S. Senate candidate Mark Neumann are slightly ahead of Baldwin in the polls.
But Baldwin dismissed this early polling and said any results obtained at this point would mostly “be related to name recognition.” She noted Thompson has held statewide office as governor and Neumann is a perennial statewide candidate, but she previously only had to be concerned about her House district.
“I think what’s much more important in terms of building a campaign is that once voters, for example, know there’s a candidate named Tammy Baldwin and she’s a fighter for the middle class, then you have, more or less, a deeply and evenly divided state in terms of Democrats and Republicans,” Baldwin said.
Asked whether being an out lesbian will be an issue during the Senate campaign, Baldwin said she thinks Wisconsin will value her honesty about her sexual orientation.
“I have always since the beginning in all my adult life been out and honest about my sexual orientation, and I think that voters appreciate the values of honestly and expect integrity in their elected officials,” Baldwin said.
Still, Baldwin maintained the race “won’t be about me” and instead will focus on the problems facing everyday Americans.
“It will be about the middle-class, the threats that they’re facing right now, the struggles that families are experiencing and which candidate for U.S. Senate is going to be the best fighter for them,” Baldwin said.
What will Baldwin do if confronted with homophobia and anti-gay attacks while on the campaign trail? The candidate pledged to respond to such attacks head on.
“To the extent that I’m faced with it in my campaign, I plan on responding very directly,” Baldwin said. “The campaign is unfolding across the country, but to the extent that it is raised in the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, I am certainly not going to turn the other way.”
Asked whether she’ll promote LGBT rights, particularly the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, while on the campaign trail, the lawmaker said she has been talking about such issues in the context of larger discussions as she said Wisconsin in 1982 was the first state to enact protections based on sexual orientation.
“When I talk about the proud tradition of the state of Wisconsin and labor and equal rights — they are all in the same conversation,” Baldwin said. “People in Wisconsin feel proud of those firsts, all of them, and view them as interlinked. That’s the same sort of way, I think, at the national level that we weave these things together.”