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Senate Win In Wis. A 'Turning Point' For Gay Rights

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin greets supporters at a campaign rally for President Obama on Nov. 3 in Milwaukee. Baldwin became the first openly gay candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat. (Getty Images)

Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's sexual orientation was never really a factor in her victorious campaign against Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Advocates for gay rights see that as a watershed moment for the movement.

Baldwin won a seat many thought she couldn't, defeating one of the state's most successful politicians in the process. The celebration Tuesday night in Madison was euphoric.

The enthusiastic crowd was never louder than when Baldwin acknowledged making history.

"I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate," she said.

Not About Being Gay

Afterward, supporters like Linda Willsey remained "sky-high."

"Dreams do come true in politics," says Willsey, who has known Baldwin for more than 25 years.

"The fact that she's the first openly lesbian woman candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat is great, but that's not why she won," she says. "It wasn't even an issue in this race."

In fact, the words "gay candidate" were rarely — if ever — spoken on the campaign trail. Baldwin, instead, mostly talked about two other words: "middle class."

Analysts say Baldwin won primarily on the same issues as President Obama in Wisconsin, including the economy.

"No one was questioning whether or not she could lead because of her sexual orientation, and that's so amazing," says Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a statewide gay rights advocacy group.

Belanger says the fact that Wisconsin voters didn't seem to care about Baldwin's sexual orientation — combined with Tuesday's victories for marriage equality in neighboring Minnesota and in three other states — represents a major step forward.

"I think that when we look back on the movement for LGBT equality, we're going to look at Nov. 6, 2012, as a significant turning point, if not the turning point in this movement," she says.

Joining The Conversation

For Baldwin, the milestone of being the first openly gay candidate elected to the U.S. Senate is the latest in a series of firsts. She was the first openly gay candidate elected to the Wisconsin Assembly, and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress.

Based on those experiences, Baldwin says this historic election changes things in one specific way.

"If you are not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you're in the room, the conversation is with you, and that ... has a very transformative effect," she says.

Baldwin says she doesn't have a specific gay-rights agenda she'll immediately push in the Senate. She says her top priority will be the issues she talked about in the campaign, including preserving Medicare, middle-class tax cuts, creating jobs and fixing the economy.

But she also notes that what happened Tuesday reflects a "sea change" in voters' attitudes toward gays, lesbians and marriage equality in just a few short years.

"There were several glass ceilings smashed on Tuesday, and ... I'm proud to have been one of those," she says.

To be sure, Baldwin and others say the gay-rights movement still has a long way to go, but never before has it gained so much on one Election Day.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This past week, Wisconsin voters made history by electing the nation's first openly gay candidate to the U.S. Senate. But Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's sexual orientation was never really a factor in her campaign against Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson. And, as NPR's David Schaper reports, advocates for gay rights see that as a watershed moment.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The celebration Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin was euphoric, as Tammy Baldwin won a U.S. Senate seat - many thought she couldn't - defeating one of the state's most successful politicians in the process.

SENATOR-ELECT TAMMY BALDWIN: And I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay member...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SCHAPER: The enthusiastic crowd was never louder than in that moment, when Baldwin acknowledged making history. And afterwards, supporters remained beyond thrilled.

LINDA WILLSEY: Super night. I'm just sky high. I can't believe it. I can't believe it. Dreams do come true in politics.

SCHAPER: Linda Willsey has known Tammy Baldwin for more than 25 years.

WILLSEY: The fact that she's the first openly lesbian woman candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat is great, but that's not why she won. It wasn't even an issue in this race.

SCHAPER: In fact, the words gay candidate were rarely if ever spoken on the campaign trail, as Baldwin instead mostly talked about two other words - middle class. Analysts say Baldwin won primarily on the same issues as President Obama in Wisconsin, including the economy. Katie Belanger is executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a statewide gay rights advocacy group.

KATIE BELANGER: No one was questioning whether or not she could lead because of her sexual orientation and that's amazing.

SCHAPER: Belanger says the fact that Wisconsin voters didn't seem to care about Baldwin's sexual orientation, combined with Tuesday's victories for marriage equality in neighboring Minnesota and three other states, represents a major step forward.

BELANGER: I think that when we look back on the movement for LGBT equality, we're going to look at November 6, 2012 as a significant turning point, if not the turning point in this movement.

SCHAPER: For Baldwin, the milestone of being the first openly gay candidate elected to the U.S. Senate is the latest in a series of firsts. She was the first openly gay candidate elected to the Wisconsin assembly, and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress. And based on those experiences, Baldwin says this historic election changes things in one specific way.

BALDWIN: If you are not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you're in the room, the conversation is with you, and that has a very transformative effect.

SCHAPER: Baldwin says she doesn't have a specific gay rights agenda she'll immediately push in the Senate, saying her top priority will be the issues she talked about in the campaign, including preserving Medicare, middle-class tax cuts, creating jobs and fixing the economy. But she too notes that what happened Tuesday reflects a sea change in voters' attitudes towards gays, lesbians and marriage equality in just a few short years.

BALDWIN: There were several glass ceilings smashed on Tuesday and I'm proud to have been one of those.

SCHAPER: To be sure, Baldwin and others say the gay rights movement still has a long way to go, but never before have they gained so much on one Election Day. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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