Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who stands a good chance of being the first openly gay candidate elected to the Senate, has a story she likes to tell about the event that propelled her into politics.
“I remember graduating from college, being very interested in public service, yet wondering what I could aspire to be,” she said in an interview. “It was that year , when I graduated from college, that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for vice president and I watched in my first efficiency apartment, a little one-room place. I choked up and I thought at that moment: I can do anything. I can aspire to anything.”
With Baldwin on the ballot, facing Republican former governor Tommy Thompson, and votes in four states to legalize same-sex marriage, there is a strong chance this election day could deliver a similar moment.
It is already galvanizing the movement for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) rights, winning Baldwin’s race national attention. US President Barack Obama held his second campaign rally with Baldwin in 48 hours on Monday morning.
During a brief stop at a small campaign office in a working-class area of Milwaukee on Sunday, Baldwin was thronged by volunteers from the Victory Fund, which works to get LGBT candidates to elected office.
They had traveled from as far as Florida, New York and California to volunteer for her campaign. Outside groups poured money into the race, allowing Baldwin to pulverize Thompson’s record. Senator Al Franken went canvassing door-to-door.
Polls show the Senate race virtually tied between Baldwin and Thompson, who has towered over Wisconsin politics for a quarter of a century. Ad spending on both campaigns topped US$65 million, making Wisconsin one of the most expensive Senate races in the country.
However, Baldwin insists her sexual orientation is rarely a topic of conversation.
“It almost never comes up,” she said. “It’s been a [election] race that has been flat out on economic issues.”
To a lesser extent, a win for Baldwin — an “ultra-liberal” in the words of her opponent — would also be a slap at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who broke up the unions and then saw off a Democratic recall vote last summer.
Baldwin is a strong supporter of most of the policies the Tea Party activists despise.
She supported and even wrote part of the healthcare bill — the section enabling children to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26. She voted for the climate change law in 2009, and wanted to deepen investment in renewable energy. She has had doubts about sanctions on Iran.
Thompson, on the other hand, wants to repeal Obama’s healthcare act, expand oil drilling and adopt Representative Paul Ryan’s deficit plan.
Baldwin, 50, has represented the liberal college town of Madison in the House of Representatives for 14 years.
Thompson has been out of politics for 12 years working as a healthcare lobbyist. He was elected to four terms as governor and served as health secretary in the administration of former US president George W Bush.
Most people following the race think it will go down to the last votes — Baldwin herself is predicting a much tighter finish than the last two elections. However, she still dared hope out loud that her own race could make history.
If she wins, her presence would force the Senate to engage more fully with LGBT issues.
“If you are not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you are in the room, the conversation is with you. We never had an openly LGBT member of the US Senate and even though there are strong pro-equality allies who serve there, it has always been a conversation about a group of people. So this changes everything,” she said.