Sen. Baldwin prepares for re-election fight in 2018

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks at the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on July 26, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

As Democrats gear up for the congressional mid-term elections in 2018, one race that will be critical for the LGBTQ community and potentially a challenge to win is the re-election bid of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress.

After becoming the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, Baldwin will face re-election in a state Trump won in a surprise last year. Her race will almost certainly be a priority for the LGBTQ community seeking to ensure visibility in Congress and to strike back at Trump after his victory there.

Aisha Moodie-Mills, CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Baldwin’s re-election is “the priority for Victory Fund through 2018 – which is why we made her a spotlight candidate almost two years before her election.”

“Her rise from the Dane County Board of Supervisors to the United States Senate is in many ways emblematic of the progress we’ve made as a movement over the last 30 years – and we need her continued leadership,” Moodie-Mills added.

In D.C. on April 26, gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein is set to host a fundraising event for Baldwin in anticipation of the upcoming battle she’ll face. Expected guests include Baldwin herself as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and high-dollar Democratic donors.

Baldwin hasn’t just aided the LGBTQ community through her visibility as the only out lesbian in Congress. In the five years she’s been in office, Baldwin has taken leadership roles — sometimes quietly, sometime more prominently — to raise attention to LGBTQ issues.

An original co-sponsor of the Equality Act, Baldwin has been closely associated with the goal of enshrining into law a comprehensive bill barring discrimination against LGBTQ people in all areas of federal civil rights law. Baldwin also took a lead role during 2013 in the more modest goal of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which the U.S. Senate approved on a bipartisan basis.

Baldwin has also urged the Food & Drug Administration to end its policy barring gay men from donating blood, encouraged the Education Department to issue (now rescinded by Trump) guidance assuring transgender kids have access to school bathrooms consistent with the gender identity and objected to the Trump administration’s appointment of anti-trans activist Roger Severino to defend access to transgender health at the Department of Health & Human Services.

The timing of her race next year on one hand is good news for Baldwin. History shows (if you overlook 1998 and 2002) the party opposing the sitting U.S. president gains seats during the mid-term election. If that holds up in 2018 — and many analysts, citing Trump’s ongoing unpopularity, believe it will — Baldwin will have the upper hand in her bid to preserve her seat.

Ironically, the tradition that the president’s party loses seats in the mid-term elections would have spelled trouble for Baldwin if Hillary Clinton had succeeded in 2016, an outcome Baldwin strongly desired as an early Clinton supporter.

JR Ross, editor of the Madison-based WisPolitics, said Trump’s victory bolsters Baldwin’s re-election chances in a state where Republicans tend to do well in off-year elections.

“Her prospects are much better now that we have President Trump rather than President Clinton,” Ross said. “If Clinton had won, she’d have two things going against her. One, Wisconsin tends to be more Republican in terms of turnout in off-year election, and two, the party in the White House ends up having a hard time in mid-term elections. Because it’s President Trump, that alone improves her chances.”

Pointing to a March 22 poll from Marquette Law School that found 41 percent of Wisconsin residents approve of Trump compared to 47 percent who disapprove, Ross said Trump’s low approval rating in the state will also help Baldwin.

“President Trump’s approval rating was upside down in Wisconsin and upside down with independents,” Ross said. “If that continues, and he’s unpopular in Wisconsin a year-and-a-half from now, that probably will help her a great deal.”

Ross said Republicans have had a better ground game in Wisconsin than Democrats in the last couple elections and there’s a question about the impact of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presence on the ballot.

Baldwin has done well in fundraising. The senator posted $2.2 million for fundraising in the first quarter of 2017 and has $2.4 million in cash on hand, a Democratic activist familiar with those numbers said.

Baldwin will be running for re-election in a state Trump won narrowly by 22,750 votes, which is largely attributed to the state’s support for populism, a political view Republicans have come to dominate. In addition to Trump’s win there, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whom many observers thought was a dead-man walking against challenger Russ Feingold, won re-election last year by nearly 4 points.

Not helping Baldwin is a poll unveiled last week by Morning Consult, which found she was paired with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) as the least popular Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018. According to the rankings, Baldwin has an approval rating of 44 percent in the state compared to 38 percent of state residents who disapprove of her.

Nathan Gonzales, editor of the D.C.-based Inside Elections, said Baldwin faces both advantages and challenges in her re-election bid, but ultimately concluded the conditions are favorable to her.

“I think 2016 showed Republicans can be successful in Wisconsin in midterm and presidential years, and that’s bad news for the senator,” Gonzales said. “But history tells us the president’s party often struggles in midterm elections, and that could be the saving grace for Baldwin. If Hillary Clinton was sitting in the Oval Office, I think the senator would have a tougher time. I still expect Baldwin to have a competitive race, but the first step is for Republicans to figure out who is running and choosing their nominee.”

The lack of an obvious Republican challenger, as Gonzales noted, is another boon to Baldwin in 2018. The candidate the GOP had hoped to field, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), a four-term member of Congress and former cast member of MTV’s “Real World,” declared in February he won’t challenge Baldwin in 2018.

“Baldwin will be beat because her radically liberal Madison record and ideas are out of sync with Wisconsin,” Duffy said in a statement. “I look forward to helping our Republican nominee defeat her. I’ll continue to work my heart out for the families of the 7th District, and I’m excited about the great things we will accomplish with our united Republican government.”

None of the other possible contenders have the same star power. According to the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, they include Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Madison businessman Eric Hovde, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) and Marine veteran and Milwaukee-area businessman Kevin Nicholson.

Much as was the case in 2012 when Baldwin defeated the favored former Gov. Tommy Thompson to win the U.S. Senate seat, the infighting among Republicans and the cash these candidates will spend to obtain the Republican nomination could make for a battered challenger that Baldwin could more easily topple in the general election.

Aware of the challenges she’ll face in 2018, Baldwin has stated her mantra heading into the race will be economic issues — a message that proved successful for Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary after his win in that state — as well as the importance of building American industry.

The plan to keep economic issues front-and-center is evident in Baldwin’s statement on Tuesday in response to Trump’s visit to Wisconsin to promote his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.

“The promises that have been made to our workers must be kept, and I stand ready to work with President Trump and take action that respects Made in Wisconsin hard work with real reforms and results,” Baldwin said.

Moodie-Mills said although races for U.S. Senate in purple states “are rarely easy,” she’s “confident” Wisconsin will re-elect Baldwin based on the senator’s message and record.

“The messages from candidate Trump that resonated with some Wisconsin voters – the importance of manufacturing jobs, support for the middle class and economic security – are issues Sen. Baldwin holds dear and has fought for throughout her career,” Moodie-Mills said. “She worked across party lines to increase investments in education and workforce readiness, ensure quality health care for all, and build a strong manufacturing economy in Wisconsin and across the country. These accomplishments will play well with Wisconsin voters in November 2018.”

Baldwin’s sexual orientation has already come up during the Senate campaign via right-wing website Breitbart News, which issued an email blast in support of drafting Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke — who’s black, but a critic of Black Lives Matter, and a guns rights supporter — to challenge Baldwin.

“Tammy Baldwin is their Holy Grail: a hard left socialist, in-your-face lesbian, and screaming feminist. SHE MUST GO!” reads the email blast, which is signed by Jack Daly, the former congressional chief of staff and counsel to now U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The email blast, which calls for donations of up to $5,000, says Clarke “deserves a bigger stage, and he wants to run,” but has to get “enough national support to combat the liberal money his opponent gets from Hollywood, the ‘Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund,’ ‘Lesbian PAC,’ and elsewhere.” (The ‘Lesbian PAC’ is apparently a reference to LPAC.)

Fear-mongering about Baldwin’s sexual orientation in a Breitbart email blast could be a sign of things to come if the Senate race is competitive and the Republican side pulls out all the stops.

Ross, who’s covered Wisconsin politics for 17 years, said Baldwin’s sexual orientation wasn’t a major issue during her first Senate run, and doesn’t expect it to be in 2018.

“There hasn’t been anything overt about that in her races that I’ve seen lately,” Ross said. “Now does that mean there won’t be mailers to certain interest groups…I can’t promise you that, but it has not been a major issue in the last few campaigns that I’ve seen.”

Beth Shipp, Executive Director of LPAC, said the political action committee is “fully committed” to ensuring Baldwin is re-elected next year after making her the first candidate it endorsed upon its founding in 2012.

“Given the results of 2016, I think it is safe to say that any incumbent has to run like they are endangered in 2018,” Shipp said. “While we don’t know who will challenge Sen. Baldwin in 2018, we do know that Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, and Republicans are already targeting her for defeat. Our LPAC community of donors and activists take that threat seriously and will be prepared to fight vigorously for Senator Baldwin’s reelection.”

Baldwin’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the extent she’ll rely on the LGBTQ community’s support for 2018 re-election bid.

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