It was like someone popped the cork on a bottle of pent-up Democratic frustration Tuesday night when it became clear that Republicans would not extend the lock they have on state government to the federal level.
When news broke that President Barack Obama had beaten back Republican challenger Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin had defeated Tommy Thompson, the state’s once immensely popular four-time governor, Democrats and progressives in downtown Madison issued a collective sigh of relief that quickly rolled into a rambunctious celebration.
At Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center, where Baldwin held her election-night party, and at the Majestic Theatre, where liberal-leaning election-night parties for liberals are becoming a tradition, Democrats blew off steam after two years of stinging defeats that included a complete flip of control of the state Legislature and the governorship from Democratic to Republican, the ouster of popular progressive U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold by tea party millionaire Ron Johnson and a failed effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
Republicans, who lost control of the state Legislature in the recall elections last summer, gained two seats in the state Senate to win back control on Tuesday, ensuring that on the state level at least, they will still run the table. But Baldwin, 50, will provide a stark counter-balance to Johnson’s right-wing agenda on the federal level.
“I am well aware that I will have the honor of being Wisconsin’s first woman senator. And I am well aware I will be the first openly gay senator,” Baldwin told the cheering crowd at Monona Terrace. “But I didn’t run to make history, I ran to make a difference.”
Her 2nd District congressional seat, which she held for seven terms, now goes to Mark Pocan, a Democratic state representative from downtown Madison who easily beat Republican challenger Chad Lee.
“I think we’re going to have a really good night tonight here in Wisconsin,” Pocan told the crowd shortly after his race was called, which was well before the results of the Senate and presidential races were announced.
The dance-party atmosphere at Monona Terrace started about an hour after polls closed at 8 p.m. and lasted until after midnight
Sensing the Republican wave might be spent, Madison resident Maureen O’Leary got out of her pajamas around 9 p.m. and headed down to the Baldwin victory party. She said she originally planned on staying home because after two years of Republican dominance in the state and the crushing failure of the recall effort against Walker, she was afraid to be hopeful.
“I am relieved and I am happy,” she shouted over the noise of the crowd. “Up until now it’s been so many lies and dirty tricks.”
Richland County resident Gloria Hays expressed similar feelings. Wearing Obama earrings and holding a “Yes we Can” sign, Hays was moving and shaking once news broke that Democrats were winning.
“I feel relief right now, just relief,” Hays says. “I was worried it was going to turn out like the recall.”
Ruth Bronston of Madison said she supported Obama in 2008 but didn’t actively campaign for him. This time around, she campaigned for him and Baldwin.
“I’m relieved,” Bronston said. “This wasn’t a sure thing.”
Throughout most of the summer, Thompson was leading Baldwin in statewide polls. But when his campaign coffers dried up after a punishing primary battle, Baldwin hit the airwaves and her numbers started to rebound.
The last Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday showed Baldwin with a 47 to 43 percent lead over Thompson, with 10 percent undecided or not offering a preference. In the previous poll, Thompson received 46 percent support and Baldwin 45 percent.
“Tonight we have won a huge victory for Wisconsin,” Baldwin said.
She called it a victory for the middle class.
“They told me the special interests have too much power in Washington,” she said, referring to people she’d met on the campaign trail. “And it’s time for the people’s voice to be heard.”
At the Majestic, a crowd of more than 300 broke into a euphoric cheer that continued for several minutes when the TV networks called the presidential race for Obama.
“I wish it wasn’t so close, but this means the world to me,” said Tara Toupal, 25, a Madison nurse.
What Obama’s re-election means depends on who you talk to.
For Ashley Ellingson, 30, an online sales coordinator, it means that women’s issues won’t get brushed aside.
“That was the big thing I was really concerned about,” she said.
For Ted Timothy, a 24-year-old biochemist, it was a vindication of Obama’s handling of the economic crisis.
“I think tonight showed that the auto bailout, while highly contentious, proved to be a good thing for the economy, and people voted accordingly,” he said.
And for Anette Hansen, 49, a small-business owner, Obama’s victory was pay dirt after she hit the campaign trail on his behalf. Hansen has spent the last four days working 12-hour days as part of a neighborhood team at Goodman Community Center on the near east side, knocking on doors and calling neighbors as part of an effort to get everyone in her district to get out and vote.
“In my heart I knew he was going to win,” she said.