She really wants to do it.
That’s the precise phrase I’ve heard for weeks from elected officials, political professionals and supporters who know her.
While the words are consistent, they are accompanied by differing tones and expressions, ranging from enthusiastic to not so much. This second group displays a scrunched face or subtle head shake, a fond but unmistakable "what’s she thinking?" semi-rebuke.
But make no mistake, U.S. Rep. Tammy Suzanne Green Baldwin, 49, is steaming toward a 2012 candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl.
In fact, it almost seems the only person who could alter her course is former senator Russ Feingold, who polling suggests would be the pre-emptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination should he run. But Feingold, only a half year removed from his unseating by Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, is said to be enjoying teaching law at Marquette University, working on a book and pursuing a personal life far removed from the political spotlight. Moreover, many see Feingold as the best Democratic candidate in a possible recall election against GOP Gov. Scott Walker. His admirers, it should be said, have expressed more enthusiasm for him in either job than has Feingold himself.
Baldwin’s thinking is much clearer. "I think I am likely to run," she says over coffee at Ground Zero on Williamson Street Saturday before heading off for a Sun Prairie parade and Rhythm and Booms fireworks. "I am gathering more data and I am going to be traveling around the state" helping Democrats — five of six of whom are women — challenge incumbent Republicans in recall elections in coming weeks. Baldwin’s name led a fund-raising appeal for the five from Emily’s List, a national political action organization devoted to electing progressive women.
The prospect of a Senate bid "is something I take very seriously," she says. "Should I run, I will have to give up my House seat. But I love this state, I love its people and I really want to see Wisconsin flourish again. It would be an amazing opportunity."
Those who scratch their heads over Baldwin’s Senate aspirations do so for two apparent reasons, the first being her stranglehold on the 2nd District congressional seat she has occupied since 1999. She has won overwhelmingly since her early elections and polled 62 percent even in the GOP tidal wave of 2010. She says it has been an honor to represent her district, but she is confident of successors. "There are very good people who would stand up to run for my seat," she says.
The second, bigger issue, of course, is that she is openly gay and has a record of supporting everything the right wing abhors, from broad access to health care to protection of reproductive rights. The headline "Run Tammy Run" scrolls across the front page of the website of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national political action committee that helps elect openly gay candidates. Last winter, Baldwin was among six Democrats who tied as the most liberal members of the House in the non-partisan National Journal rating for 2010.
Yet the prospect of smears by an opponent, or, perhaps more likely, in shadowy "issue ads," does not seem to faze her.
"It is daunting these days the way people are personally demeaned for holding a view, and yet I fear good people won’t step forward and run for office if we don’t set an example," Baldwin says of the ugly and hyper-partisan political terrain. "The toxicity is such I fear we won’t have good people standing for elections."
In her fund-raising appeal, Baldwin spoke of "cynical voices," the ones "doubting me from the very beginning." She wrote, "They said, ‘You’re a woman. You’re a lesbian. And you’re too outspoken.’ "
In my interview, she recalls that in 1998 she defeated two better-known Democratic primary foes. "The pundits out here predicted I would be a pretty distant third," she says.
Conventional wisdom is that Baldwin and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat whose district includes La Crosse, would be serious candidates should Feingold stay out. A May poll by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling had Feingold winning overwhelmingly (70 percent among Democrats) should he run; Baldwin, at 12 percent, was the only other candidate in double digits.
Kind, whose record is much more moderate than is Baldwin’s, said recently he would await the outcomes of recalls in August before deciding. Meanwhile, former Gov. Tommy Thompson leads a field of well-known Republicans potentially lining up for a shot at Kohl’s seat.
Baldwin made her fund-raising results by last week’s June 30 federal reporting deadline a key barometer. She said Saturday she would release the numbers soon, but added, "I am very encouraged by the responses I was getting on the phone and in the mail." She says a primary and general election campaign might cost $15 million to $20 million, and that’s without accounting for spending by outside groups.
Her comments Saturday seemed to suggest how she would frame her candidacy. First, she would not run as a candidate of her hometown of Madison, where she attended Shorewood Hills Elementary and was 1980 valedictorian at Madison West High School.
Her district includes urban, suburban and rural areas as well as small towns, which, she points out, is just like the rest of Wisconsin.
"I am well-known now in south-central Wisconsin," she says. "I win handily across that area. That basically describes the rest of the state. It’s just that I have not introduced myself to folks across the state yet and look forward to that opportunity." She recalls as a little girl visiting New Glarus to go to a lace factory with her grandmother, a seamstress. Her personal story, she seems to be saying, is pure Wisconsin, not just of Madison.
She also talks of how as a member of a House committee on energy issues she traveled the state and is familiar with its regions and people.
Baldwin laments the Republican wave she says is foremost about partisan politics, repealing President Obama’s health care law, reducing reproductive freedom and preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. "I am familiar with being in the minority but this is different; it’s depressing," she says.
She maintains last year’s elections were an anomaly and that people did not expect the extreme divide-and-conquer approach of Republicans in Madison and Washington.
As we wrap up, I mention how those close to her are struck by her unwavering passion to do this. She smiles. "It is a major decision, and I have to make it carefully, but I am likely to do it."
Anticipating the tenor of anti-Baldwin vitriol (perhaps exhibit A will be a predictable cesspool of online comments to this column), hers is a profile in courage, Wisconsin-style.