© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

How Tammy Baldwin Wins Where Other Democrats Lose

Republicans agree: The Wisconsin Democrat has a knack for old-school politics, giving her an unusual advantage with rural voters.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin has an advantage relative to other Democrats running for reelection this year. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Sen. Tammy Baldwin has for years now done what for other Democrats has felt impossible: She has consistently won over enough rural voters to keep her swing-state seat secure.

Two years after Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin, and two years before Joe Biden barely won it, Baldwin won by almost 11 points. And her reelection chances this year are generally considered solid, with uncertain Republican opposition, even in a year that’s expected to be difficult for Senate Democrats.

Even Baldwin’s Republican colleagues say she’s doing something unique: winning over rural voters with bread-and-butter, old-school politicking, tightly focused on local issues with little regard for the drama of national politics.

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.

Mark Graul, a GOP strategist who ran George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign in Wisconsin, agreed. “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?’”

That work has included extensive efforts with the dairy industry and “Made in America” (made in Wisconsin, in particular) — issues typically seen as more Republican concerns, though generally not met with abject horror by other Democrats. That means the issues wind up tallying up bipartisan support too.

Last year, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment she led that mandated all components for all Navy ships be manufactured in the U.S. within the next decade. When Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Wisconsin last summer to tout a deal with Nokia that would create up to 200 new jobs in Kenosha County, she credited Baldwin, who she said made the “Made in America” requirements a “priority.”

Baldwin also introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act last year, bipartisan legislation that would effectively go against the Biden FDA’s proposed guidance allowing nondairy products to use the name “milk.”

“Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name,” Baldwin said in a press release.

Not being flashy is the point. “Tammy Baldwin is not focused on what will get attention in Washington, D.C.,” said her campaign spokesperson Andrew Mamo.

And being at least a bit boring is now just winning politics in Wisconsin. It’s a label that has stuck to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, and one he embraced after winning reelection in 2022. “As it turns out, boring wins,” he said then.

“Most folks are campaigning on the bigger, broader issue, whether it’s taxes or abortion or health care,” Graul said. “She is really good at picking out [something] very specific to that community and their concerns.”

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Baldwin won 24 counties in 2012 that would later go on to elect former President Donald Trump in 2016. Of these 24 counties, 18 are rural. Ten of them 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. While Baldwin loses the state’s rural vote overall, she loses it by far closer margins than other recent Democrats who’ve run statewide.

Baldwin is particularly known for traveling widely in Wisconsin, well beyond Madison, the capital and her hometown. “She gets around the state,” Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan said.

A campaign document highlighting her efforts last November and mapping out some 2024 efforts emphasized her plans to visit “conservative strongholds.”

That includes Richland, whose voters have voted to put her, Evers, Trump and Johnson in office. It’s a rural county with more than 1,000 farms, 95% of which are family-owned, and it’s leaned more Republican since Baldwin was up in 2018. In her push there, she has highlighted her efforts to expand rural broadband and work to get child care to rural regions. Richland also got a share of about $2.6 million for a child care center through Senate appropriations.

Baldwin also went to Marathon, a rural county that typically votes Republican by double digits; she lost there by only about six points in 2018. She championed $6 million she secured in appropriations for an agriculture research facility there and new SEC rules that mirror legislation she introduced in 2016 after a local incident.

Mandela Barnes, a Democrat who ran for Wisconsin’s other Senate seat and lost by one point in 2022, said during his campaign, Baldwin “was showing up almost everywhere. I was gonna say anywhere we asked her to show up, but it felt like sometimes we’d show up but she’d already just be there.”

Pocan, who represents bright blue Dane County, presidential bellwether Sauk and rural Lafayette, also goes where he’s not expected, or where he’s not even winning. That, frequently, leans rural.

“We just try to spend a little more time so that they can get a chance to kick the tires and see what they think, and we’ve made a very strategic plan to do that, just like Tammy does,” he said.

Is Baldwin’s singularity in seeing these kinds of rural margins in the state a shortcoming of the state’s Democratic Party? “No, not at all,” Barnes said. “You can have all the party infrastructure you want. You can have all the resources you will, but there is that time to invest, there is that commitment, that dedication [from the candidate] that doesn’t just happen all on its own and it can’t be manufactured.”

When it comes to ousting Baldwin, Republicans are looking to link her to unpopular Biden, as they sort through their own contested primary. This could be a particularly impactful tactic with rural voters.

Tiffany said 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.”

Whoever emerges from the Republican primary will have to tell rural voters “‘yeah, that’s great that she helped you with this small thing’ but remind them,” said Graul, that she’s “really, frankly, tied into Joe Biden.”

Seems like that’s the tactic. “Baldwin may want Wisconsinites to believe she’s a moderate, but she can’t hide from her decades-long record of far-left votes and shouldering the disastrous Biden agenda,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Tate Mitchell said in a statement.

“It’s just a matter of, will her opponent have enough money to put the message out,” Tiffany said.

Of the 10 rural Baldwin-Trump-Baldwin counties, seven are partially or entirely represented by Rep. Derrick Van Orden in the House, a first-term Republican who flipped a district held for nearly three decades by a Democrat.

Van Orden said he doesn’t know why Baldwin wins in his district, saying only that his constituents are “independent thinkers.”

But when describing his methods for trying to keep his seat in a swingy district, Van Orden sounds like he’s reading from the Baldwin playbook.

Van Orden said the Democrat before him, Rep. Ron Kind, didn’t have staff in Portage County. So Van Orden “intentionally” put somebody there.

“They tend to be a little more liberal, and they’re really far away,” Van Orden said. “My guy that’s there is still questioned by different groups in the county because they’re like, ‘Why are you here?’”

“So we’re making inroads into places that haven’t been there before,” Van Orden said. “We have been providing outstanding constituent services.”

On issues? “The legislative work that we’ve been doing up here for farmers is remarkable,” Van Orden said. “Dairy too.” Last year, he introduced the Dairy Business Innovation Act, which supports dairy businesses in the development, production, marketing and distribution of dairy products.

The companion bill was introduced by Baldwin.

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.