MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tammy Baldwin is used to firsts.
Back in 1998, she was the first woman elected to represent Wisconsin in the House and the first gay non-incumbent ever sent to Congress.
On Tuesday, she added to those distinctions with her victory in Wisconsin’s Senate race, becoming the state’s first female senator and the first openly gay candidate ever elected to the chamber.
And she won by holding off a political comeback by popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson who had never lost a statewide race.
“I didn’t run to make history,” a jubilant Baldwin told screaming supporters after acknowledging the dual firsts she had achieved. “I ran to make a difference.”
Coupled with the fact that President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin on his way to re-election, Baldwin’s victory was a blow to the state’s resurgent GOP, even though the Senate seat has been under Democratic control since 1957, when Communist-hunter Joe McCarthy died in office.
A sullen Thompson, surrounded by his family and Walker, said he wasn’t “going to go away,” though the loss likely spells the end of a storied career in politics that began in 1966 and included 14 years as governor and a brief run for president in 2007.
It was a bruising battle. The race was the most expensive Senate campaign in state history, costing more than $65 million, much of it spent on sharply negative ads.
A noticeably subdued Thompson thanked his supporters who gathered in a suburban Milwaukee hotel.
“I’m not going to go away, but I’m not going to run again,” he said, adding that he had “never campaigned harder.”
During the race, some of his backers complained that Thompson wasn’t trying hard enough to win and said he should have spent more time in the public eye.
Baldwin insisted that Thompson no longer spoke for Wisconsin residents, noting that he spent seven years in the private sector making millions of dollars off connections he established while serving as governor and U.S. health and human services secretary.
Thompson, who was governor from 1987 to 2001 before leaving to join President George W. Bush’s cabinet, hadn’t been on a Wisconsin ballot in 14 years before Tuesday.
After announcing his Senate run, Thompson faced three more conservative challengers during a bruising Republican primary election in August. He said the primary left him broke and exhausted.
Baldwin, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, seized the opportunity. She and her supporters outspent Thompson 3-to-1 on television advertising in the weeks after the primary, which helped her surge in the polls heading into November.
During her campaign, Baldwin argued that Thompson was not the same man who Wisconsin voters had repeatedly elected to office since 1966. She stressed how he made millions of dollars in the private sector while working for a high-powered Washington law firm and a variety of health companies since 2005.
The criticism stuck.
“Tommy Thompson was popular here as governor, but his activities since then have been questionable,” said Baldwin voter Dawn Magnusson, a 39-year pediatric physical therapist from Sun Prairie.
Thompson told voters that Baldwin was too extreme for Wisconsin, noting her support for universal health care and a voting record that ranked her as one of the most liberal members of Congress. Ads against Baldwin, meanwhile, tried to portray her as an extremist and frequently used footage of her from a recent rally shouting, “You’re damn right!”
But on Tuesday, it was Baldwin who got the last laugh, knocking down a political legend.
“I am honored, and humbled, and grateful,” Baldwin said in her acceptance speech. “And I am ready to get to work.”
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