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ELECTION NIGHT

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks during her election night party held at Monona Terrace Tuesday night.

Poll watchers didn’t even wait for the returns to come in Tuesday night before calling the race.

At U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s election night party at Monona Terrace in downtown Madison, talk of the race being called early by CBS buzzed through the crowd as the doors opened at 8 p.m., the same time the polls closed. So when her picture flashed on the giant TV screen with a check mark for a projected win, it was almost anti-climactic.

“That was a little odd,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, of the early call. He attributed Baldwin's decisive win to her connection to Wisconsin voters.

“Tammy has represented Wisconsin so well for the last six years, not just at campaign time,” he said.

With 67 percent of precincts in, Baldwin held an 11 point advantage over Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir, the same margin she had in the last Marquette University Law School Poll released on Oct. 31. It was a far wider margin than her 2012 victory over Republican Tommy Thompson, ending the political career of the state’s longest serving governor.

In her speech, she told supporters the victory represents a win over special interests. 

"After more than $14 million of nasty attack ads, it means nothing because I had something that they didn’t: you," she said. 

It’s a remarkable victory in a state that went to Republican President Donald Trump two years ago, considering Baldwin’s unabashed progressive credentials, her embrace of Medicare for all and her status as the only openly LGBT senator in the nation’s history.

“Make no mistake, I am proud to be a Wisconsin progressive,” she told some 300 supporters.

Vukmir sought to capitalize on Trump's base, voicing full-throated support for the border wall, taking a hard-line anti-abortion stance and vowing to repeal Obamacare, even while championing its provision to protect people with existing conditions.

She sold herself as a gun-toting Second Amendment supporter, and launched broadsides against Baldwin for her failure to act sooner on reports three years ago that opioids were being overprescribed at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. But the family of the veteran whose death sparked the scandal supported Baldwin in television ads.

Taking a page from the Trump playbook by adopting disparaging labels and playing on fears of Islamic attacks, she dubbed Baldwin “Princess Painkiller” and accused her of siding with terrorists.

With speculation of a blue wave, Baldwin had the luxury of working beyond her base, becoming a familiar face on the state’s dairy farms and championing Buy America policies that appeal to some of the same blue-collar workers who voted for Trump in 2016.

She also pulled in about $29 million since Jan. 1, 2017, enabling her to saturate TV time with a masterful ad campaign that portrayed her as humble, authentic and effective.

Vukmir raised $5.3 million.

Vukmir thanked supporters and her family and God, above all, during her concession speech in Pewaukee, ending with a Bible verse and encouraging supporters to "keep the faith."

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"It looks like it's not going to go our way tonight," she said. "We ran a pretty hard race ... I'm proud of the race we ran."

Baldwin’s victory was a payoff for her efforts to connect with her constituents throughout the state for years, Pocan said.

“She’s traveled the state, worked with the shipbuilders in Marinette, worked with every aspect of the agricultural industry, fought for American jobs and tried to raise our wages here in Wisconsin,” he said. “That’s what most people think about at the kitchen table — can they afford their rent or mortgage, do they have health care? Those are the issues she ran on, and that’s why it went well.”

Baldwin’s victory also offers a pathway for progressives who show they can thread the needle between anti-Trump sentiment and finding areas of agreement with the president and GOP lawmakers. While some Democrats were quick to pan Trumps tariffs, Baldwin maintained that they were too broad, but that they “send a strong message to bad actors like China.”

She garnered early support from the president for her call for government to buy American-made goods, which also resonated with U.S. labor organizations.

“Union members have been hitting the streets, knocking on doors, making phone calls and talking in the workplace to re-elect a true champion for union families,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale in a statement. “From fighting bad trade deals, to enacting Buy American legislation and protecting good Wisconsin jobs – we know Tammy Baldwin will continue to stand up to the special interests and support the people of Wisconsin in Washington.”

Baldwin continued the same pro-labor theme of her campaign during her speech.

“I’m going to continue to work on Buy America reforms, to move our made-in-Wisconsin economy forward,” she said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.