U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate late Tuesday. Baldwin beat longtime former Republican Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson after a bruising campaign that included tens of millions of dollars in negative ads.
Baldwin also is the first woman elected to the Senate from Wisconsin.
“The people’s voice was heard tonight, Wisconsin, and come January your voice will be heard in the United States Senate,” Baldwin told hundreds of cheering fans just before 11:30 p.m. Tuesday at Monona Terrace in Madison. Thompson conceded a short time later.
Baldwin said she’d spoken by phone with Thompson and that he was “very cordial and wished me well.” She thanked him for “his life in public service” and assured his supporters, “I will be a senator for all of Wisconsin.”
Baldwin said she was “well aware” her election made history, but “I didn’t run to make history, I ran to make a difference,” she said, promising to help “families struggling to find work” and “seniors worried about their retirement security.”
A subdued Thompson conceded the race as fellow Republicans Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and Gov. Scott Walker looked on. Van Hollen called Thompson, 70, a mentor, friend and father figure.
Thompson, who was U.S. Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush and had a lucrative career as a Washington, D.C., attorney and corporate executive, said he ran to help steer the nation toward a better course.
“I certainly didn’t need the job — and I guess I’m not going to get it,” Thompson joked. “I didn’t need anything else on my resume, because I’ve already accomplished more than anybody from Elroy ever thought I would.”
The race was seen as Thompson’s final attempt to re-enter the political arena after a short-lived presidential run in 2008.
The mood was markedly different at Baldwin’s party, where Diedre Buckley, 50, of Madison, danced with dozens of others after Baldwin claimed victory.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “It’s great that we can elect an openly gay senator, especially in Wisconsin. I’m thrilled about that, but I’m actually happier as a regular voter. She’s so good at the really boring stuff that elected officials have to do, not the sexy stuff.”
‘Pioneer’ of health reform
Ann Louise Tetreault, 60, a Madison nurse, called Baldwin “an original pioneer of health care reform” and someone who’s always looked out for the underdog because she’s often been one herself in her political races.
“She doesn’t have the millionaires behind her, the 1 percent,” she said.
At stake was control of the U.S. Senate, where Democrats had a 51-47 majority, with two independents who lean Democratic, going into the election. On Tuesday night, Democrats kept control of the body.
The main challenge for Thompson — known by many in the state simply as “Tommy” — was to introduce himself to a generation of voters who didn’t remember him as governor, an office he left more than 11 years ago.
“Tammy,” as most people in the Madison area know her, had to raise her name recognition among voters in other parts of Wisconsin, including places where Madison is viewed warily, if not unfavorably, as a hotbed of liberal politics.
Interest groups opened a firehose of money in an effort to influence the race, which is estimated to have cost more than $50 million. Baldwin will replace retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, who took office in 1989. Wisconsin’s other senator is Ron Johnson, a Republican from Oshkosh.
Up until the closing days, the race was considered to be as close as any in the country, with most polls showing a statistical dead heat between Thompson, who served for 14 years as Wisconsin’s governor, and Baldwin, who represented Madison in Congress for 14 years.
But just before 9 p.m., news outlets began calling the race for Baldwin — an early result that, coupled with the call that President Barack Obama had also taken Wisconsin, deflated the crowd gathered to cheer on Thompson and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Milwaukee Marriott-West in Pewaukee in the heart of GOP country.
Weakened by primary
Walker said Tuesday night that Baldwin had the advantage in the early part of the campaign after the four-way Republican primary when she had millions to spend and Thompson complained of being “broke.”
“I think the reality was the Thompson campaign didn’t have as much money as he expected after the primary,” Walker said before results came in.
Thompson drew on his statewide name recognition and the well of residual goodwill that remained from his gubernatorial days between 1987 and 2001, when the economy improved and Thompson was known as an innovator who reformed welfare and launched BadgerCare, the health care program for low- and moderate-income Wisconsinites.
He repeatedly painted Baldwin as the most liberal member of Congress.
Baldwin, 50, known as a tireless campaigner, focused her message on giving consumers and taxpayers a “level playing field” with big businesses and the rich, and that the most vulnerable be cared for.
The gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign praised Baldwin as a “trailblazer.”
“As the first openly gay person elected to the United States Senate, Tammy Baldwin is a role model for LGBT youth and all young women across the country,” president Chad Griffin said in a statement.
“I think she really did it,” said Patrick Farabaugh, 35, publisher of “Our Lives,” an LGBT magazine in Madison. “She’s beyond a hero to me, and I’m sure that’s true for millions of people across the country.”