MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tammy Baldwin captured Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, becoming both the state's first female senator and the first openly gay candidate to be elected to the chamber.
The seven-term congresswoman from Madison held off a political comeback by Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson, handing him his first defeat in a statewide race. A sullen Thompson, surrounded by his family and Gov. Scott Walker, said he wasn't going away, though the loss likely spells the end of a storied career in politics that began in 1966 and included 14 years as governor and a run for president.
Baldwin broke a GOP winning streak in Wisconsin that began in 2010, with the election of Walker and tea party Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, and continued as recently as June when the governor survived his recall election.
The congresswoman's victory Tuesday, coupled with President Barack Obama carrying Wisconsin on his way to re-election, was a double hit to the GOP.
Although the Senate seat has been in Democratic control since Communist-hunter Joe McCarthy died in office in 1957, it was a bruising, expensive fight.
The election was the most expensive for a Senate race in Wisconsin history, costing more than $65 million, and marked by highly negative ads that painted both candidates as ill-fit to serve the state.
Baldwin, 50, was jubilant Tuesday night as she spoke to screaming supporters in her hometown of Madison, the liberal capital city she has represented in Congress for 14 years.
"I didn't run to make history," Baldwin said, after acknowledging the dual firsts her win brings. "I ran to make a difference."
A noticeably subdued Thompson thanked his supporters who gathered in a suburban Milwaukee hotel hoping for victory.
"It's not the way I planned it," the 70-year-old Thompson said while surrounded by his family.
His supporters shouted, "We love you Tommy!" as he thanked those who had backed his campaign, adding: "I've never campaigned harder."
During the race, some of his backers publically griped that Thompson wasn't trying hard enough to win and should have spent more time in the public eye.
Baldwin had insisted that Thompson no longer spoke for Wisconsin residents, noting he had spent seven years in the private sector making millions of dollars off connections he made while governor and U.S. health secretary.
Thompson, who served as governor from 1987 to 2001 before leaving to become President George W. Bush's health secretary, hadn't been on a Wisconsin ballot in 14 years before Tuesday. But he also had never lost a statewide election.
Scott Fisler, 48, a car dealership manager from St. Francis, said he voted for Thompson because of the work he did as governor reforming the state's welfare system.
"That kind of forward thinking I hope he can bring back, that we can all pitch in because it's all of us," Fisler said. "We all have to work really hard at this."
Chris Pfeifer, 34, a warehouse clerk from Madison, said he voted for Baldwin because he liked the job she's been doing in Congress.
"I think Tommy had his chance already," Pfeifer said.
After announcing his Senate run, Thompson faced three more conservative challengers during a bruising Republican primary election in August. Thompson said the primary left him broke and exhausted.
Baldwin seized on the opportunity. She and her supporters outspent Thompson 3-to-1 on television advertising in the weeks after the primary, which helped her surge in the polls heading into the November election. Baldwin had run unopposed in the Democratic primary.
During her campaign, Baldwin argued that Thompson was not the same man who Wisconsin voters had repeatedly elected to office since 1966. She stressed how he made millions of dollars in the private sector while working for a high-powered Washington law firm and a variety of health companies since 2005.
Thompson told voters that Baldwin was too extreme for Wisconsin, noting her support for universal health care and a voting record that consistently found her ranked as one of the most liberal members of Congress. He specifically stressed that her position on federal health care reform was even more liberal than Obama's by advocating for more government oversight.
They also sparred over each other's approach toward Medicare. One ad running against Thompson showed him telling a tea party group in June that he supported doing away with Medicare and Medicaid. Thompson said he supported a version of the plan put forward by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
Ads against Baldwin, meanwhile, tried to portray her as an extremist and frequently used footage of her from a recent rally shouting, "You're damn right!"
Much of the campaign had been fought by outside interests pouring millions into a barrage of such television ads, pushing overall spending on the race to make it one of the most expensive in the country this year.