Tammy Baldwin’s senate bid already tipping some dominoes

Democratic Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin’s announcement last Tuesday that she will run in the open race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Herb Kohl since 1988 touched off next day announcements by Assembly representatives Kelda Helen Roys and Mark Pocan that they will seek the congressional seat she will be vacating. Both Madison area dems were very visible during this year’s capitol protests and they have strong progressive reputations in an area where most people want and expect that from their legislators.

Politics is not a completely different game in Madison, but I would say that you have to be much better at it to be as successful as Tammy Baldwin has been. It’s a sophisticated and highly engaged constituency. Think of it like Olympic hockey. There’s a Canadian team and the Latvian team. There is an entirely different level of play going on between those two and it doesn’t take very long after the puck drops for that world of difference to become apparent.

The political farm system in Madison includes not only elected officials and their staffers, but scores of advocacy groups, lobbying organizations, administrative agencies and think tanks who all play the inside game with ambition and skill in a way that doesn’t commonly occur in other parts of the state. (The exception may be Milwaukee, where being a city council or county board member is actually a better gig than serving in the state legislature.)

It is out of this environment that Tammy Baldwin comes to run for U.S. Senate. A former member of the Dane County Board and the state legislature, she won her congressional seat in 1998 after four-term Republican Congressman Scott Klug decided not to run for re-election to the seat he had shockingly wrested from 16-term Democratic incumbent Robert Kastenmeier in the 1990 midterms. Kastenmeier retired to Arlington, VA – something that summed up one of the biggest raps on him in his race with former WKOW-TV news anchor Klug.

While her first two elections for Congress were relatively close, nobody has been able to capture even 40 percent of the vote against Baldwin in the last decade. (I chose her election night party last November at the Brink Lounge in Madison because I wanted to go to the one place where I was absolutely sure people would be celebrating a victory.) That makes it a big deal for her to give up a district that has become very reliable.

But the district’s altered state in 2012 includes considerable new territory to the west that is currently part of Congressman Ron Kind’s 3rd district. Baldwin’s 2nd also loses a chunk in the north to 6th District Congressman Tom Petri – a moderate Republican first elected to the House in 1978. There is also a piece of the east central region in Baldwin’s current district that ends up in Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s 5th District for the 2012 elections. (This could be entertaining, since there couldn’t be much more contrast in Wisconsin’s Washington delegation than what exists between Baldwin and Sensenbrenner. In addition, he may be the only state politician that can make former Congressman Dave Obey look like Dale Carnegie.)

It is generally accepted that Democrat Kind and 7th District Republican Sean Duffy both come out ahead in the wholesale turf trading that occurs in their districts. Baldwin probably doesn’t, but it may also make Congressman Kind a little less willing to give up his congressional district to challenge Baldwin, with the converse possibly playing into Baldwin’s decision to run.

It’s difficult to say how Tammy Baldwin will fare in a statewide race. She was the first openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to the House of Representatives and she would be the first openly gay non-incumbent to win a U.S. Senate seat, if she prevails next year. Her domestic partner for 15 years was Lauren Azar, a former member of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin who resigned earlier this year to become a senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Although I didn’t know her personally, I was very impressed with Azar and slipped in favor of her appointment to the PSCW in 2007 at her confirmation hearing before the Senate utilities committee. This was based strictly on my view of her background and what she had to say at the hearing. A few weeks later, a handwritten thank you note from Azar appeared in the mail, which surprised me with its graciousness for what I saw as a very small gesture of support toward a person who was so obviously well qualified.

I was unaware of Azar’s connection to Baldwin at the time, but none of it was ever any particular secret, either. Baldwin and Azar were one of the first couples to register their same-sex partnership with Wisconsin’s new registry in 2009 and there was a statement from Baldwin when it was terminated the following year, with word that neither would have any further public comment about it, which they haven’t. So what little I can tell you first hand about either is that they are both long on intellect, integrity, insight and class. These are things that will never be in oversupply.

Of course, Baldwin’s resume does just fine on its own. She was one of 133 members of the House to vote against the authorization to invade Iraq. As we pass the 10th anniversary of the attacks that were partially used to falsely justify this unconnected and ill-advised adventure that has cost more than the stimulus bill that the GOP constantly maligns, it’s too bad that her view didn’t carry the day. She also opposed overturning the Glass-Steagall Act, which had wisely separated federally insured commercial banking from investment banking activities since the Great Depression. (I guess we all know how that one turned out.)

 National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Bond said the GOP is looking forward to the clear contrast this race will provide. Me too.

JR

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