MILWAUKEE — On a recent campaign swing through Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin talked about protecting abortion access and marriage equality — but spent even more time highlighting her work related to food labeling, supporting American manufacturing and addressing forever chemicals in drinking water.
Baldwin is one of the country’s most progressive senators, and she’s running for a third term in what could be the country’s most closely divided state. She played a prominent role mobilizing Democratic voters ahead of a Wisconsin Supreme Court election this year that became a referendum on abortion rights. A lower court ruled this fall that abortions could resume in the state. Democrats believe that 2024 voters will remember the year in which their reproductive rights were in question; Republicans hope the ruling will diminish the issue’s salience next year. Either way, Baldwin also has a formidable track record of appealing to Wisconsin’s more rural, conservative pockets with her economic agenda — and she’s already busy talking to voters and raising money as she waits for a high-profile Republican challenger to enter the race.
Winning in Wisconsin in 2024 is a both/and, not an either/or, that will require energizing the party’s base while also courting crossover voters, said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “A small group of crossover voters can decide a statewide election, as can a small group of people deciding to get off of the couch and go to the ballot box. You have to do both, and you have to do both everywhere,” he said.
Baldwin’s both/and approach was on display when she stopped by a house party of mostly millennial moms. Baldwin, the first out LGBTQ+ woman elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate and the first woman from Wisconsin, highlighted how she is willing to work with anyone with whom she can find common ground, no matter how far to the right they might be. Every two years, she told the moms, she reaches out to every single incoming first-term senator to request a meeting.
“I have bills with most of them now,” Baldwin said, pointing to legislation she has cosponsored with ultra-conservative, first-term Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio that would require taxpayer-funded technologies to be manufactured in the United States. Then another they have cosponsored related to country-of-origin labeling for products sold online, along with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, as well as Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana.
“That’s how I do it, and I’ve actually been, interestingly, getting a lot of pushback from the media: ‘Did you hear what he said about gay people?’ And, you know, I didn’t. ‘But you’re working with him, what about that?’ Well, you know, he didn’t say it to my face and I want to pass this bill. So we’re going to work together,” Baldwin said of her work with Vance.
The progressive-leaning women at the house party nodded approvingly.
Baldwin has a track record of outperforming other Democratic candidates in statewide races; she won reelection in 2018 by more than 10 points. She also heads into the 2024 matchup with the benefit of incumbency. In 2022, incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won reelection by fewer than 27,000 votes, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won by about 90,000 votes. Recent polls of Wisconsin voters show a tight race in a matchup between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, who surprised pundits by winning Wisconsin in 2016, then surprised himself by losing it to Biden in 2020. The former president has denied the outcome ever since, as have many of his high-profile GOP supporters in Wisconsin.
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Political insiders anticipate that there will be one or more deep-pocketed self-funders who get into the Republican race early next year. In the mix are Eric Hovde, a real estate developer who attempted a Senate run in 2012 but lost in the GOP primary, and Scott Mayer, a political newcomer who runs a staffing agency. Hailing from the party’s Trump wing, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is also interested. Several relatively unknown candidates have already declared. Baldwin’s campaign announced earlier this month that it had raised about $3 million in the third quarter — more than during the same period ahead of her 2018 reelection race. She has about $7 million in the bank.
Abortion boosted Democratic outcomes in the 2022 midterms, but it is unclear to what extent and where it will factor next year. When the Supreme Court in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, a Wisconsin law from 1849 went into effect that ended nearly all abortions in the state, and it remained that way for 15 months. In April, in a state Supreme Court election, Wisconsinites backed Janet Protasiewicz by more than 10 points to flip the ideological composition of the court in favor of abortion rights. Then, in September, a lower-court judge said the 1849 law actually applied to feticide, not abortion, and abortions resumed.
William McCoshen, a Republican strategist in the state, said he believes the court ruling will dampen abortion’s impact at the ballot box next year, but he also cautioned his party’s candidates against the “extraneous stuff” that has consumed the state GOP, like a recently abandoned plan to impeach Protasiewicz and the attempted removal of the state’s top nonpartisan election official over Trump’s 2020 loss. Republican candidates would be well served by focusing on so-called kitchen table issues like inflation and its impact on gas, groceries and mortgage payments, he said. “Most people do not want to have politics in their face seven days a week, 365 days a year. … They’re interested in you focusing on the issues that impact their lives,” he said.
But Baldwin has a head start talking about these kitchen table issues with voters. At the house party, when a mom asked her how they could best defend Baldwin’s work against claims of a “radical” liberal agenda, the senator explained she has a “Wisconsin alliteration” they can use: “wellness, work and water.”
Wellness, Baldwin said, because she has focused on health care during her years in the Senate, and in the House before that. “Today, that same wellness agenda is about confronting the mental health crisis and substance use disorders, and about the fact we have a workforce shortage in those areas,” she said. Baldwin was largely raised by her grandparents due to her late mother’s opioid addiction and mental illness.
Work, Baldwin continued, includes the “Buy America” provisions she championed in Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. “Just three weeks ago, we went to a [Nokia] factory that’s going to double its size because they’re going to build the circuitry for the build-out of high-speed Internet” due to buy-America provisions, Baldwin said.
Water, she concluded, because “you can’t be from Wisconsin without just sort of identifying with water.” The state borders both Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, and in the bipartisan infrastructure package enacted last year, more than $25 million was earmarked to combat PFAS forever chemicals persistent in Wisconsin’s water that can impact the thyroid, liver, fertility and other bodily functions.
There is also a long list of issues on which Baldwin has worked that appeal to base voters. She was a lead sponsor of the latest iteration of the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would codify abortion rights nationally. She fought to have racism declared a public health crisis during the country’s 2020 racial reckoning. She has championed expanding health insurance for young people under the Affordable Care Act. And she shepherded historic marriage-equality legislation through the Senate with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
Arik Wolk, the rapid response director for Wisconsin Democrats, said that Baldwin has a “uniquely strong brand” in the state. “She can talk to Democratic base voters about issues like championing reproductive rights and her work on the Respect for Marriage Act, but at the same time, she is able to hone in on parochial Wisconsin issues like protecting made-in-America manufacturing jobs, and fighting for Wisconsin dairy farmers with her Dairy Pride Act. Those are things that cut across party lines,” he said.
Baldwin told The 19th that the Respect for Marriage Act, which was signed into law late last year, showed what is possible even in the current Senate, which is split 51-to-49 in favor of Democrats, but where nearly all legislation requires support from 60 lawmakers to overcome the filibuster.
“Nobody thought we could do it. No one thought we would be able to get 60 votes — we got 62,” Baldwin said. “But I do think with voting rights, and with reproductive choice, that we will have to ultimately reform the filibuster.”
“But if we get another Democrat, keep the president, win back the House, we have a realistic chance,” she added.