HAYWARD, Wis. — On the banks of Moose Lake, Sen. Tammy Baldwin served meals from a food truck purchased by the local senior resource center and expanded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Later, Baldwin heard from constituents concerned about President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the very same USDA program. She vowed to fight those and other suggested funding reductions from her perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
This is not the conversation you would expect in Sawyer County. Not in Trump country.
Part of a sea of red in the state, the county went for the former reality TV star over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by just over 18 points. The same county voted 50.9 percent for Baldwin in 2012.
But for some Trump-backers in the area, his allure is fading.
“I’d like to see them get things done in Washington. To a certain degree, I’m disappointed in Trump — too much tweeting,” said Bob Johnson, a registered Republican. “I like to see good politicians; I don’t care if they are Democrats or Republican.”
These are the voters the incumbent senator must court for her re-election bid next year.
Like several of her fellow Democrats facing a difficult race in 2018 in states that went for Trump, Baldwin is toeing the same line: Try to embrace parts of the president’s “America First” mantra that helped secure the White House while making sure not to alienate a Democratic base that expects substantial resistance to an administration bent on rolling back many of former President Barack Obama’s domestic achievements.
For Baldwin though, Trump’s main talking points sound familiar. She highlights them as goals she has fought for since before entering the federal government.
“If you look back at my campaign in 2012, you would hear me talking about leveling the playing field for Wisconsin workers … ‘Buy America’ policies to make sure that when we are using taxpayer dollars, that we are supporting U.S. products and U.S. workers,” she said during a recent interview. “Four years later, that same hard-working Wisconsinite heard ‘Buy America, Hire America’ from the current president.”
“I’m not going to change who I am when I run for re-election,” Baldwin added. “We need action to follow up his words. But when I’m running for re-election, they are going to see action following up my words.”
And the senator is looking for credit for those actions.
“The demarcation I want is, I got there first. When he was still a reality television star, I was working to add ‘Buy America’ provisions to important bills,” she said.
Baldwin knows the state well. She won her Senate seat in 2012 with 51 percent over former Gov. Tommy Thompson, after seven terms in the House. Trump won the state with 48 percent, beating Hillary Clinton by just over 22,000 votes.
Wisconsinites last year also re-elected Sen. Ron Johnson, who took 50 percent, 2 points higher than what Trump received.
“Senator Baldwin’s record reflects the very liberal Washington elitism that Wisconsinites just rejected,” Alec Zimmerman, communications director for the Wisconsin GOP, said in a statement. “In 2018 Republican reformers will stand in stark contrast to Senator Baldwin, who continues to put Washington ahead of Wisconsin.”
Politics in America’s dairyland
Wisconsin politics has always been somewhat of a wild card, sandwiched between historically Democratic-leaning Minnesota and Illinois.
Voters in the Badger State elected Baldwin to her seat in 2012 as the first openly gay lawmaker to serve in the Senate, as well as the first woman elected to the chamber from Wisconsin.
Those same voters have also kept Gov. Scott Walker — who has pushed to allow states to ban gay marriage — in office since 2010. One of the more conservative governors, Walker survived a recall election in 2012 and won again in 2014 with just over 52 percent of the vote.
Despite the conservative forces in the state, Baldwin has maintained her liberal tilt more so than some of her colleagues. Unlike, say, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is also up for re-election next year in a state Trump won, Baldwin voted against the president’s choice for the open Supreme Court position, Neil Gorsuch.
She also co-sponsored a bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, to create a single-payer health care system in the U.S. In doing so, she aligned firmly with the left wing of her party, something Republicans immediately pounced on.
“After suffering through the disastrous results of Obamacare, a $32 trillion socialist health care system is the last thing Wisconsinites want or need,” Katie Martin, communication director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a release. “Folks in Wisconsin deserve to know why Tammy Baldwin is putting them at risk to support the left’s radical plans for government-run health care.”
But Baldwin does plan to support the president when it aligns with her priorities.
“When Trump campaigned on things that I had campaigned on for two decades — and that I not just campaigned on, worked on and have accomplishments on — I’m not going to go against things that I have been championing,” Baldwin said.
She has perhaps taken a more strategic approach to her resistance and sought to capitalize on Trump’s often-vague promises and the positions he espoused during the presidential campaign to push her own policies.
A key example is the carried interest loophole, something that Trump has decried but is absent from the draft tax plans released by the administration.
“I would love him to help me pass that bill; I would love it to be a part of the larger tax debate,” Baldwin said.
Looking ahead to next year, Baldwin anticipates a big focus on the field effort, bolstered by the recent “Better Deal” agenda that Senate Democrats rolled out earlier this year. That agenda aims to raise wages, create jobs and lower the cost of living for families.
“I know that’s not messaging, that’s an agenda, but obviously messages flow from the agenda,” she said. “I think it’s really vital and it’s going to be really vital that it be echoed and amplified not necessarily as a partisan issue but ... when people are knocking at the doors.”
It remains to be seen how that agenda will resonate with voters. Almost every Wisconsinite asked to weigh in on it said they had not heard of the “Better Deal.”