U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin reflects on re-election victory and blueprint for Democratic success in Wisconsin

Bill Glauber  |  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Updated 20 hours ago

It was the day after the 2016 presidential election when leading Democrats U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee discussed the results.

“She said a lot of things that day,” Baldwin recalled as Democrats lost the state to President Donald Trump, in part because of the fall-off in voting in Milwaukee.

According to Baldwin, Moore told her: “We’re never going to let this happen again. I don’t want to lose you as my senator. And so, we’re in this together.”

Baldwin’s alliance with Moore, a longtime friend, was part of a campaign strategy that ultimately led to her decisive re-election Tuesday.

In defeating Republican Leah Vukmir by 10 points, and piling up 1.47 million votes, Baldwin provided the coattails that helped her party sweep the statewide races.

Baldwin didn’t just accumulate hundreds of thousands of votes in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane County, she also turned key counties in the Fox Valley blue — Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago.

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In all, Baldwin won in 17 counties that Trump carried in 2016.

“I think the campaign we ran can serve as a blueprint for Wisconsin campaigns to come,” Baldwin said Wednesday.

Baldwin pointed to successes in the Fox Valley, “re-engaging the coalition in western Wisconsin that had been lost in the past couple of cycles,” and creating a field operation to work with all the candidates. Baldwin’s team started its field effort in 2017.

The aim was to revive the grassroots and lead on issues that voters cared about, she said. Baldwin emphasized “Buy American” policies and apprenticeship programs that crossed party lines. According to exit polls, around 6% of voters cast ballots for Baldwin and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who lost his re-election bid for a third term.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Dane County Democrat, said Baldwin “explicitly ran for and from Wisconsin rather than Washington, D.C. She spent six years getting to every corner of the state, fighting on behalf of shipbuilders in Marinette, working on behalf of every different aspect of the agriculture industry of the state. She was just authentically fighting for Wisconsin first and foremost.”

Milwaukee was key.

Moore opened doors to Baldwin in the city, especially among churches and small businesses in the African-American community. Sheila Cochran, a retired Milwaukee labor leader and Moore ally, was brought in to run Baldwin’s operation in the city.

“Gwen had my back,” Baldwin said. “And so did Sheila.”

Baldwin enjoyed a large fundraising advantage, more than $29 million to Vukmir’s $5 million as of mid-October. But Vukmir, a state senator from Brookfield, proved to be a relentless campaigner, working hard to win the GOP primary over businessman Kevin Nicholson and crisscrossing the state in the general election.

Vukmir stuck to her conservative beliefs, didn’t back down in the three debates and didn’t give up in the final weeks even though polls showed her trailing by double digits. But in a year that was good for Democrats, she was running against a political headwind.

Thanking her staff and supporters Tuesday night, Vukmir said: “I wouldn’t change anything in the past few months.”

During the last week of the campaign, Baldwin hopped aboard a school bus used by Gov.-elect Tony Evers and his running mate, Mandela Barnes, the incoming lieutenant governor.

“It was a great pleasure and honor to be able to campaign throughout the state with the entire ticket,” Baldwin said of the tour that at times included Josh Kaul, the incoming attorney general, and Sarah Godlewski, who won the treasurer’s race.

“If I did something to help get them across the finish line, it’s something I’m proud to have been able to do,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin will return to the U.S. Senate as part of a smaller Democratic minority. But she was hopeful bipartisan agreements could be achieved, especially with Democrats in control of the House.

“I think we will see legislation that we can get to the president’s desk and I think we’ll be forced to focus on the things we agree on and maybe getting back to less-polarized times,” she said.

Areas of potential compromise, Baldwin said, include infrastructure, lowering prescription drug prices and the farm bill.

“I think we’ll just see if the president is willing to work with Democrats now, or not,” she said.

The battles of Washington, D.C., lie ahead. But for one day, at least, Baldwin paused and expressed her gratitude to Wisconsin’s voters.

“I’m just so proud of the voters of this state, working so hard,” she said. “They got a senator fighting for them, not the special interests.”

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