WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) beat Republican Tommy Thompson for Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday, becoming the nation's first openly gay senator.
"I am honored and humbled and grateful, and I am ready to get to work -- ready to stand with Barack Obama, and ready to fight for Wisconsin's middle class," said Baldwin to raucous cheers at her victory party.
Even during his four-way GOP primary race, Thompson was long considered the frontrunner. He was a popular governor in the state who later served as President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary and enjoyed high name-recognition in the state.
But his strategy of portraying Baldwin as a far-left liberal faltered. When he tried to go after her for not being strong enough in speaking out against Iran, Thompson's own investments in companies that do business with Iran became a bigger issue.
When he went after Baldwin for not supporting 9/11 first responders, he was quickly called out by independent fact-checkers and first responders' families for launching a dishonest attack. It also brought more attention to the fact that his firm profited off 9/11 responders with a lucrative federal contract, and raised more questions about why he was even talking about the 11-year-old issue to begin with.
Although Baldwin made history on Tuesday night when she became the first openly gay senator-elect in U.S. history, her sexual orientation was largely a non-issue in the race. In September, Thompson's political director tweeted a message deriding Baldwin's "heartland values," accompanied by a video of Baldwin dancing at an LGBT pride parade. Thompson later distanced himself from his aide's tweet.
"Now, I am well aware that I will have the honor to be Wisconsin's first woman U.S. senator. And I am well aware I will be the first openly gay member of the United States Senate," she added, with the crowd drowning her out and chanting "Tammy! Tammy!"
"But I didn't run to make history," she continued. "I ran to make a difference –- a difference in the lives of families struggling to find work and pay the bills, a difference in the lives of students worried about debt and seniors worried about their retirement security, a difference in the lives of veterans who fought for us and need someone fighting for them and their families when they return home from war, a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs trying to build a business and working people trying to build some economic security."
Baldwin will be succeeded in her House seat by state Assemblyman Mark Pocan, a Democrat who is also openly gay.
In the final weeks of his campaign, heavy-hitters such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Gov. Scott Walker (R) tried to boost Thompson's fundraising and help him on the campaign trail. Thompson, however, had to strike a delicate balance with Ryan -- benefiting from the GOP vice presidential nominee's popularity while staying away from the controversial Medicare proposal in his budget blueprint.
Baldwin, meanwhile, ran an aggressive campaign, painting Thompson as beholden to special interests.
Republicans had been on a winning streak in Wisconsin, after Walker survived Democrats' attempts to recall him from office in the summer. In 2010, they captured the governor's seat and Ron Johnson replaced Russ Feingold in the Senate. Despite a full-on effort by Walker, Ryan, Thompson and Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus -- who previously served as the head of the Wisconsin GOP -- Republicans lost both the Senate and presidential race in the state on Tuesday.
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