By Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel
Madison - U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison announced Tuesday that she is entering the 2012 race to succeed retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl.
Baldwin is the first Democrat in the field and likely the front-runner for her party's nomination.
In a video statement emailed to supporters and posted on the Internet, Baldwin set out the broad theme of her campaign: "to stand up for you (voters), no matter how tough the odds or how powerful the special interest it means fighting against."
She linked herself to the political tradition of Kohl and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and declared, "It's time politicians looked out for seniors, working families and the middle class - instead of protecting the profits of big oil and Wall Street."
Baldwin's early entry puts pressure on potential Democratic rivals U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse and former U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen of Appleton to make up their minds about entering the race, even though a possible primary is about a year away.
With a strong base of support in voter-rich Dane County - and no candidates from the Milwaukee area - Baldwin has a viable path to claim the nomination.
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, she promised to wage an aggressive grass-roots campaign, both online and in person, and vowed to travel across the state.
"Showing up matters," Baldwin said, adding, "I've always been a people-to-people campaigner."
To her supporters, Baldwin, 49, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, is a political maverick who voiced early opposition to the war in Iraq and has called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
"If you look at her career, people consistently underestimate her and she consistently surprises people," said state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine). "She has a real message that appeals to people's lives, how things affect them in the workplace, the doctor's office. She represents the interests of ordinary Wisconsin citizens."
Kevin T. Conroy, president and CEO of Exact Sciences Corp., hasn't decided which Senate candidate to back. But he said Baldwin is a "great listener and she really cares about the businesses in this state." Conroy's opinion draws attention because his name was briefly floated for a run at the governor's office in 2010.
To her opponents, particularly among Republicans, Baldwin is the definition of a tax-and-spend Madison liberal who backed "Obamacare."
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, who announced last week his bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, made it clear he regarded Baldwin as his Democratic opponent. He said his campaign would stress the differences between his conservative record and Baldwin's record.
The National Journal, he said, ranked Baldwin in a tie as the most liberal member of Congress.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who is all but guaranteed to enter the U.S. Senate race, said, "I think Tammy is the epitome of what's wrong in Washington right now."
"I've never personally met Tammy and I hear she's a wonderful woman, but there you have somebody in the state Assembly for a long time (Baldwin was first elected to the Assembly in 1992), she's a professional politician, she's been in D.C.," he said. "But when you look at her record, it's just a record of increased spending and higher taxes. And although I think she's going to be very strong and tough to beat in a primary, I think in a general election that's going to be a tough message to sell statewide."
Other Republicans considering Senate runs include former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, state Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) and former state Sen. Ted Kanavas.
Raising her profile
Baldwin began to raise her political profile earlier this year when she joined tens of thousands of protesters who rallied in Madison against Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill.
Kohl's retirement announcement in May set off speculation that Baldwin might run for the Senate seat. Once Feingold said he wouldn't run for office in 2012, Baldwin had an opening.
Appearing relaxed during an interview Sunday in a bar-restaurant a few blocks from the State Capitol, Baldwin talked about her political future between sips of Diet Coke.
She said, "Politicians in Washington and Madison aren't hearing, aren't listening to their constituents and prioritizing getting people back to work and growing our economy."
Baldwin said as senator she would seek to "put people back to work immediately rebuilding roads and schools," boost small businesses and entrepreneurs while also reining in the national debt.
She said she would close tax loopholes "to folks who ship jobs overseas" and favored a repeal of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
"At a time of debt reduction, which is essential, it's time for fairness," she said. "Everybody, including those who have climbed the ladder of success, needs to be part of the solution. You cannot lower the debt merely on the backs of the middle class."
Baldwin also appeared eager to take up the challenge to define herself to the electorate. One recent poll showed she had 54% name recognition among the state's voters.
If she wins, Baldwin would be the first openly gay person to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"The fact is, I've been honest about my sexual orientation my entire adult life," she said. "And integrity is important in public service. But what voters are looking for is somebody who understands them, is fighting for them and won't give up. The election is not going to be about me, it's about the voters."
Baldwin's liberal record - a solid credential among Democratic activists - would likely play a large role in a general election campaign. To win statewide, Baldwin would not only have to claim some independents, she would have to hold on to conservative Democrats in Milwaukee County.
Asked if she is a Madison liberal, Baldwin said: "What I am is a fighter. And when I fight for my constituents and when I fight for working people, that means standing up to some pretty powerful interests. And when you do that, it's not unusual that they pick labels. But what I am is a fighter."
Don Walker and Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.