Election 2020

Wisconsin Senate Race Highlights Why LGBT Activists Call Midterms a 'Historical Moment'

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks with reporters in the Capitol on Jan. 22, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Gay-rights activists have warned gay and progressive voters that Republicans in Wisconsin have nominated an anti-LGBT woman to run against the lesbian incumbent, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D).

And Wisconsin is only one state in which LGBT activists are worried that gay rights could be eroded if Republicans win November elections. Beyond saving what ground has been gained, Human Rights Campaign leaders also see a chance to begin the process of throwing President Trump out of the White House.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir scored a resounding 50 percent to 42.4 percent victory in the Wisconsin Republican August primary with the backing of the state GOP establishment. She never shied away from that, touting her credentials as a lifelong Republican aligned with Gov. Scott Walker (R).

Tammy Baldwin was not only the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin, but is the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Baldwin began dating Lauren Azar in the mid-1990s; they split up in 2010 after nearly 15 years together. Ironically, their relationship ended just after they registered for recognition of a domestic partnership in Wisconsin.

Their relationship was public enough that The Hill — a chronicle of all things political in Washington — took note of the breakup. Queerty worried at the time Republicans would use the Baldwin-Azar split as proof that gay couples are inherently unstable.

Baldwin’s first TV ads of the campaign didn’t say anything about gay rights. The ads slammed Vukmir as being a shill for big corporations, with the tagline “Leah Vukmir: She’s not for us.”

LGBT rights were never a Wisconsin GOP Senate primary campaign issue, and even though they don’t say it in so many words, that is exactly what Human Rights Campaign leaders are telling their supporters about Leah Vukmir: She’s not for us.

Into told its readers Wisconsin GOP voters did more than cast aspersions about LGBT relationships in the August primary; they elected “a right-wing extremist” to “face off against America’s only LGBTQ Senator.”

Wendy Strout, the Wisconsin manager of the Human Rights Campaign, went so far as to argue Vukmir “had no place in the United States Senate.”

Strout said Vukmir’s record included consistent opposition to “common sense protections for the LGBTQ community” and same-sex marriage.

“She has consistently worked to undermine LGBTQ equality, and built a disturbing record that demonstrates a long-standing hostility to some of Wisconsin’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities,” Strout said in a statement.

The Vukmir-Baldwin race is much closer than Democrats would like. In July, an NBC News/Marist poll showed Baldwin led Vukmir by 17 percentage points. But an August Marquette Law School poll taken just the first four days following her GOP primary win showed Vukmir trailing Baldwin by only 2 percent among likely November voters.

Strout said the Human Rights Campaign is taking the battle to get Baldwin her second six-year Senate term very seriously. The HRC, Strout explained, is targeting more than 560,000 “Equality Voters” in Wisconsin who are believed to be in lockstep with the Human Rights Campaign on gay-rights issues.

Strout also said the HRC already has campaign staff on the ground in Wisconsin to mobilize those voters as part of the group’s nationwide HRC Rising campaign, which Strout proclaimed the most significant grassroots expansion in the HRC’s history.

“I’ve referred to some of them as the cavalry,” Geoff Wetrosky, the HRC Rising campaign manager, said to the Washington Blade. “They go where the fight needs to be fought at any given moment.”

The Baldwin-Vukmir race isn’t the only midterm election that has put LGBT political activists at DEFCON 1.

The HRC’s #Turnout Campaign, which was active in the 2016 effort to put Hillary Clinton in the White House, has identified five states in addition to Wisconsin — Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania — in which Democrats who support LGBT rights are in danger of losing to Republicans.

It would be wrong to assume the HRC is taking an entirely defensive approach to the November elections. Wetrosky called the 2018 midterms “a historical moment for the LGBTQ community.”

To make sure the “moment” creates the kind of history desired by the HRC, Wetrosky promised the campaign would spend $26 million to get an estimated 10 million lesbian, gay and transgender – and another 52 million heterosexual liberal and progressive – voters to cast ballots in November for candidates determined to be LGBT-friendly.

Beyond the U.S. Senate elections, Wetrosky said the six target states also give LGBT rights activists and progressives a chance to put their candidates into statewide offices like governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.

All of those opportunities combined offer LGBT and progressive voters an opening to do some real damage, the HRC believes.

“The road to pulling an emergency brake on Trump and Pence runs through the six HRC Rising states,” Chris Sgro, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Washington Blade.

Sgro also said HRC victories in those six states will have implications beyond the 2018 midterm elections.

“The Senate races there, key House races there, and subsequently the road to altogether stopping Donald Trump and ending his presidency,” Sgro explained, “runs through the 81 electoral votes in those states.”