Here's a blast from what now seems like the district past: "The 2nd Congressional District will always be a competitive seat."
This is a quote from Kerry Schumann, then-director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Group, in a November 1998 article in The Daily Cardinal. It appeared in a column by the paper's opinion editor, Michael Beland, who believed Tammy Baldwin's narrow victory over Republican challenger Josephine Musser made the Congresswoman-elect the "newsmaker of the semester."
Today, a similar comment about the competitiveness of the 2nd Congressional District might inspire ridicule in some quarters.
Sure, Baldwin's election back then as the first openly lesbian member of Congress was a landmark event. But now Baldwin has six terms under her belt, and the district was reconfigured in 2001 to make it more solidly Democratic.
Baldwin, 48, has not won reelection by less than 25 percentage points since 2002. And few people outside of GOP challenger Chad Lee and his supporters think that's going to happen on Nov. 2.
A 1980 graduate of Madison West High and a UW Law School alum, Baldwin cultivated her political roots in downtown Madison. She served on the Dane County Board from 1986 to 1994 and in the state Assembly from 1995 to 1999.
A down-the-line liberal, Baldwin is proud to run on her party's accomplishments in the last session of Congress. This includes the economic stimulus as well as legislation reforming health care, financial services and student loans. Baldwin calls it one of the "most productive" Congresses in U.S. history.
Health care has long been Baldwin's signature issue, the main reason she got involved in politics. It's why she sought a position on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee the primary agent for health policy in the House. While she would personally prefer a single-payer system and fought unsuccessfully for a public option alternative to private insurance, Baldwin says the health-care reform Congress passed goes about "half the way toward the nirvana I wanted."
And yet, Baldwin admits she's disappointed by her party's failure to make gains in other areas, such as repealing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. She says that on this issue, like the abandoned public option, her party's leadership "should have drawn a line in the sand."
Asked about Lee, a 27-year old Mt. Horeb businessman making his first bid for public office, Baldwin says that it's difficult to tell where he stands on the issues, and that his campaign seems based more on personal narrative than policy.
That's a fair assessment, but it might be a mistake to discount the power of Lee's personality. In contrast to Baldwin's last Republican challenger, Peter Theron, who mostly focused on the dry details of his conservative ideology, Lee stakes out more moderate positions and ably describes how his life story guides his political beliefs.
"When [college students] graduate with debt, I want to make sure they can get jobs," says Lee. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University in the red and struggled financially in the first two years of his business venture. Lee's campaign told the Journal Sentinel that he earned just $11,747 in 2007 and $6,636 in 2008.
Similarly, having been denied coverage in the past because of a preexisting injury, Lee lauds certain aspects of the health-care reform bill that Baldwin backed, like the new rules prohibiting denials based on preexisting conditions and the provision that lets adults stay on their parents' plans until age 26.
"Are all 2,700 pages of it bad? Absolutely not," he says. "But let's not make it a mandate."
Lee pegs Baldwin as ineffective. As he put it at a debate last Sunday, "Over the last 12 years, our representative has had little to no influence in Congress."
Interestingly, Lee aims to appeal to anti-big-business sentiments as well as the more typically Republican anti-big-government ones. "Stopping bailouts and creating jobs" reads the banner on his website, and his one TV ad declares that "Tammy Baldwin's vote for the Wall Street bailout means Wall Street works while America doesn't."
Even when denouncing Baldwin on his website for supporting "government-run health care," he accuses the incumbent of believing that "big corporate special interest groups should have the power to determine your medical treatment."
So far, Lee's approach seems to be working about as well as anyone could expect for a Republican in a Democratic district. He's already raised twice as much money as Theron did two years ago, and his professionally developed website and presence in traditional media suggest the existence of a competent campaign, feeding off a motivated conservative base.
Emily Monske, vice chair of the UW-Madison College Republicans, says Lee offers an opportunity for conservative students to be motivated on the typically liberal campus.
"I think Lee is very relatable, not only because of his age, but also his outgoing personality and his overall platform, especially his stance on jobs and the economy, something that many college students are concerned about," she says. "In that way I believe he's gained a lot of support among students."
Still, despite signs of large Republican gains in Congress, Baldwin is unlikely to be a victim of the Beltway's unpopularity. Nate Silver, a New York Times pollster who creates election projections from statistical models based on polling, incumbency and fundraising, rates Baldwin's chances of reelection at 99.9%.
Moreover, she will unlikely be vulnerable in the future. Although the districts will be redrawn because of the 2010 census, UW political science Prof. Ken Meyer, who studies legislative redistricting, sees little reason to believe this process will make the 2nd significantly more competitive.
"A third of any district that contains Madison is going to be overwhelmingly Democratic," he says. "And if you don't have unified control in the Legislature, then you have a replay of 2001, and [redistricting] will wind up in the courts."
Wisconsin will not be losing or gaining a Congressional seat, as it did 10 years ago, so the redistricting will be less drastic.
But whether or not the 2nd Congressional District is competitive, it can still play an important role in the context of more closely contested statewide races. According to polls, an unmotivated Democratic base may be the downfall of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, and could provide an edge to Republican Scott Walker over Democrat Tom Barrett in the race for governor.
A popular incumbent like Baldwin facing a credible challenge could be just what is needed to draw the Democratic faithful to the polls. And that could end up making Tammy Baldwin the Democratic MVP of the year.