Even Republicans Praise Tammy Baldwin
Democrat’s ability to court rural vote wins grudging respect — and fear.
Rural voters have become a giant headache for Democrats. While Bill Clinton carried about half of all rural counties, more than 1,100 in 1996, that has declined drastically since then, to just 455 counties for Barack Obama in 2008 and a mere 194 for Joe Biden in 2020. That was about the same as Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
But Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has bucked that trend. She won 18 rural counties in 2012 that would later vote for Republican Donald Trump for president in 2016. “Ten of those counties voted for her again in 2018, despite her reputation as one of the most liberal members of the Senate. Democrats lost nearly all of them in the next federal elections, as all but two went for Trump in 2020 and all but one for Sen. Ron Johnson in 2022,” notes a recent story by an interesting new publication called NOTUS or News of the United States.
Baldwin is so good at it that even Republicans — begrudgingly — praised her ability to win over rural voters. “Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany, who represents the most rural Wisconsin congressional district, said Baldwin’s ‘good constituent services’ are part of why some voters in his district are more inclined to her,” the story noted.
And Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign in Wisconsin, said “What she does a really good job of is finding out, ‘Hey, is there some sort of issue you’re having with the federal government that I can try to help with?’”
There’s no doubt that Baldwin is good at old-fashioned, bring-home-the bacon politicking that elevates local concerns over hot-button, highly partisan issues like immigration or gun control. She has pushed Made in America requirements for manufacturers supplying the federal government for many years, something Vice President Kamala Harris touted last summer in an appearance in Wisconsin to herald a deal with Nokia that would create new jobs in Kenosha County.
And Baldwin has pushed the DAIRY PRIDE Act that would counter Biden FDA’s proposed guidance allowing nondairy products to use the name “milk.” As she put it a press release aimed at Wisconsin dairy farmers, “Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name.”
But many members of Congress have good constituent services and look for ways to get federal funding for their districts. What makes Baldwin different is how hard she works at it, not just during campaigns but during the six years before elections for U.S. Senator.
As Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll told Spectrum News, “some campaigns only go to parts of the state that they normally lose in like September and October,” but “Baldwin has had a history of spending the time… When she’s in office, she’s going to those less urban places, less Democratic-friendly places.”
“I can’t tell you how many times during the past few years [I’ve heard voters] say, ‘We don’t usually see a U.S. senator coming to our neck of the woods, especially a Democrat,’” Baldwin once noted. “But showing up matters; listening matters.”
A Baldwin campaign document highlights her efforts to visit “conservative strongholds” like Richland County, which has voted for her, Trump and Ron Johnson. In this rural county with more than 1,000 farms, Baldwin has pushed to expand rural broadband and child care. Richland got some $2.6 million for a child care center through Senate appropriations.
The campaign also touted her work in rural Marathon County, which benefitted from $6 million she secured in federal funding for an agriculture research facility. She also pushed for a federal SEC rule to prevent the kind of predatory lending that led to the shutdown of a Marathon County paper mill. Baldwin lost the county by six points in 2018, but it typically votes Republican by double digits.
Like other Democrats in Wisconsin, Baldwin runs up the score in blue counties like Milwaukee and Dane, but the difference is she does far better in more Republican rural areas. Baldwin won by 10.8% in 2018 in the same election where Democrats Tony Evers and Josh Kaul won by just one percentage point in the races for governor and attorney general.
It is rare for Democrats to do so well in rural areas. Axios could come up with only 10 examples nationally in the 2022 midterm election, and one of them was Evers, who is nowhere near as successful as Baldwin.
Tiffany complained that Baldwin “says one thing at home and people say, ‘Gosh, that’s that nice, nice Senator Baldwin.’ In the meantime, she’s voting against their interests in Washington, D.C., and she’s been able to get away with that. I mean, it’s very skillful, politically, on her part.”
But Republican Leah Vukmir tried to make that case in 2018 and failed. Tiffany, too, had a chance to try his luck in this election. He even purchased the domain names “thomastiffanyforsenate.com” and “tomtiffany4senate.com” — only to decide against challenging Baldwin.
And that might be the most dramatic testament to her strength as a candidate. Nine months before the election there is still no Republican to take on Baldwin. Besides Tiffany, there was talk that his fellow Republican congressman Mike Gallagher would run, but he, too, got cold feet. Other names floated were former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Franklin businessman Scott Mayer. Neither has stepped forward yet. In early December the media widely reported that millionaire businessman Eric Hovde was preparing to run against Baldwin, but that was two months ago and he has yet to announce.
And should Hovde decide to enter the race he will have to have a strategy for how to run up his totals in rural counties that Baldwin has been visiting for 12 years, patiently listening to voters concerns and working to deliver policies and funding they favor. That won’t be easy.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.