Tammy Baldwin's Victory Caps Historic Night

The crowd at the Tammy Baldwin victory party at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in downtown Madison was euphoric.

All night, the returns rolled in on giant screens in the convention center ballroom. As Obama's victories piled up in state after state, the crowd cheered wildly--finally exploding when the news from Ohio arrived.

Mark Pocan, whose victory from this liberal district was all but assured, fired up the crowd when he talked about Wisconsin's progressive values, about representing Bob LaFollette's district, and taking the seat in Congress once held by Bob Kastenmeier and Tammy Baldwin. And he got a huge response when he thanked his husband, Phil, and kissed him, right on stage.

Bold progressive victories were particularly sweet for Wisconsinites who so recently lived through the losing recall battle against Governor Scott Walker.

(There was no mention from the stage of the bad news in statewide elections--where Republicans, following aggressive redistricting, reclaimed the Senate, taking the brakes off Walker's power that had been applied by last summer's legislative recall victories.)

The icing on the cake was Baldwin's win in the U.S. Senate race.

That a Dane County progressive--the first woman elected to the Senate from Wisconsin and the first openly gay member of Congress--could beat the longest serving governor with broad statewide appeal--was, as Baldwin put it in her graceful victory speech, "historic."

"But I didn't run to make history," she said. "I ran to make a difference."

The difference she wants to make, she explained, is "in the lives of families struggling to pay bills . . . students worried about debt . . . seniors worried about retirement security" and "veterans who fought for us and need someone fighting for them."

Baldwin's theme--of representing the powerless against powerful interests--resonated perfectly in this election year.

"When people are struggling, you don't talk down to them. You help lift them up," she said in her speech.

"Make no mistake, I am a proud Wisconsin progressive," she declared. But then she segued to a very warm and gracious story about her opponent.

"I just got off the phone with Tommy Thompson and he was very cordial and wished me well and wished all of you well," she told the crowd.

Then she told a story about Thompson--about how, when she first came to the state legislature at the age of 30, he remembered her father, and how he lit up, remembering their college days, and would talk to her fondly, making her feel welcome.

It was both a reminder and the embodiment of the Wisconsin value of civility she went on to promote. And a startlingly gentle tone to take in what was judged the most negative Senate campaign in the country.

With her soft, almost girlish voice, Tammy could be mistaken for a push-over.

But it was her tough ads against Thompson: "Tommy: he's not for you anymore," that set her on the path to victory.

Brilliantly, she acknowledged people's affection for Thompson, at the same time she nudged them to see how he had changed--going to Washington, getting rich, and representing the health care industry instead of ordinary Wisconsinites.

In a way, it was a perfect summary of the whole nation's transition from the go-go 1990s to a recognition that greed and deregulation have led us to the economic wreck we face today.

And, of course, it helped that Thompson himself looked like a wreck in the debates--angry, remote--a caricature of the man her negative ads portrayed.

Hearing her sound those themes again in her victory speech, as the Republicans' Thurston Howell-like Presidential candidate went down to defeat, her win seemed almost inevitable.

But it was far from that.

At the start, everyone counted Baldwin out. She had no name recognition. Her opponent had little trouble tagging her as "the most liberal member of Congress."

How did she do it?

"People underestimated her," John Kraus, communications director for Baldwin's Senate campaign told me. "And they overestimated Thompson."

Tammy had a huge job to do when she set her sights on the Senate seat. "She had to introduce herself to the entire state," Kraus pointed out.

And, at the same time, "she had to redefine Tommy."

"It's always a fight to define your opponent. But to redefine him is a much steeper hill to climb," says Kraus. "She proved she's a candidate who could do that."

And, most of all, "At her core she could appeal to what voters were really looking for in this election, which is, as we climb out of this economic recession, 'Is this a person who is really going to be on my side and fight for me?"" says Kraus. "That's really at Tammy's core. And that makes it much easier."

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tammy Baldwin Gets a Lift from Obama."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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