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New Faces: Newly elected US senators

Associated Press Modified: November 8, 2012 at 1:45 am •  Published: November 8, 2012
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"I look around this room and I see so many volunteers who helped with this campaign from the beginning," Fischer said Tuesday night in her victory speech. "You folks were here for me when we weren't given much of a chance at all. We formed a great grassroots organization, we worked hard, and, hey, we're here today."

When Fischer announced her Senate campaign 16 months ago at an Omaha steakhouse, only a few dozen people showed up — mostly reporters, Fischer family members and a smattering of campaign aides. But her star power was heightened in the subsequent months.

Fischer's colleagues in the Legislature have described her as a tough lawmaker and an unwavering advocate for her overwhelmingly rural district — the largest geographically in the state — in north-central Nebraska.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, a Republican who came into office the same year as Fischer, said he could tell Fischer was "tough as nails" when they met during an orientation for freshman lawmakers.

"It didn't take me very long to figure out she was in it to achieve great things," Flood said. "She does not back down. She does not squirm. She looks you straight in the eye to tell you what she's going to do, and she works with people to get it done."

Fischer credited her win to her boots-on-the-ground campaign, in which she put 45,000 miles on her car traveling rural Nebraska during the primary campaign, and the support of popular of Republicans like Gov. Dave Heineman and U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns in the general campaign.

NEW MEXICO

Democrats held onto both of New Mexico's Senate seats Tuesday with election of one of the state's fast-rising political stars, Martin Heinrich.

The 41-year-old, two-term representative in the U.S. House defeated Republican Heather Wilson for the seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Jeff Bingaman.

It is the second time in four years New Mexicans have elected a new senator, after Bingaman and Republican Pete Domenici held the state's two seats for more than 30 years.

In 2008, Democrat Tom Udall, a former congressman and state attorney general, was elected to replace Domenici.

The themes of this year's Senate campaign mirrored many of those in the presidential race. Heinrich portrayed himself as a defender of the middle class and safety net programs such as Medicare and Social Security. But Wilson blamed Democratic policies for job losses and the nation's sputtering economy. She opposed President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which Heinrich supported.

Heinrich, 41, has quickly climbed up the ranks in New Mexico politics. He moved to the state in 1995 to take a job at a federal research facility after earning an engineering degree from the University of Missouri. He started a public affairs consulting business and in 2003 won a seat on the Albuquerque city council. Three years later he became state natural resources trustee, an appointive state government job overseeing the restoration of environmentally contaminated areas.

He took the seat vacated by Wilson when she made her first unsuccessful run for Senate in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to win the Albuquerque-area district in 40 years.

Heinrich grew up in Missouri, where his father was a utility company lineman and his mother was a factory worker. He and his wife, Julie, have two children.

NORTH DAKOTA

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp's ascension to the U.S. Senate, as the first woman ever to serve North Dakota in Congress, represents the capstone of a political career that began 28 years and six campaigns ago.

The former North Dakota attorney general and tax commissioner defeated Republican Rick Berg on Tuesday by about 3,000 votes, with all precincts reporting. Berg had the option of demanding a recount, but he conceded the race Wednesday.

Heitkamp, 57, grew up in the rural southeastern North Dakota hamlet of Mantador, one of seven children. Her brother, Joel Heitkamp, is a former North Dakota Democratic state senator and a popular talk show host on Fargo's KFGO Radio.

An attorney, Heitkamp was working as an assistant attorney general for the state Tax Department when she ran for North Dakota state auditor in 1984. She lost, but Gov. George Sinner appointed her state tax commissioner two years later when the incumbent, Kent Conrad, was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Heitkamp won her own term as tax commissioner in 1988, and subsequently was elected to two terms as attorney general, getting at least 62 percent of the vote in all three races. Voters warmed to her affable, glad-handing campaigning style and often blunt public speaking style.

As attorney general, Heitkamp was one of the lead negotiators of a $206 billion lawsuit settlement reached by 46 states with the nation's largest tobacco companies to compensate the states' medical expenses for treating smoking-related illnesses.

She ran for governor in 2000 but lost to Republican John Hoeven, the former president of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, in a campaign that was derailed late by Heitkamp's disclosure that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she is now cancer-free.

Heitkamp stayed active in politics after her loss, helping to lead a referendum campaign against the weakening of North Dakota's bank privacy laws, and a ballot initiative campaign to force the Legislature to spend a larger portion of North Dakota's share of the tobacco lawsuit settlement on anti-smoking measures.

She has vehemently disagreed with what she describes as President Barack Obama's hostility to coal and oil as energy sources.

TEXAS

Ted Cruz's election to the U.S. Senate from overwhelmingly Republican Texas was once unthinkable. Now it feels almost anti-climactic.

The tea party darling and former state solicitor general beat Democrat Paul Sadler to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But his sweetest victory came in the GOP primary, when he stunned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, one of the state's most-powerful Republicans.

Never before having sought elective office, Cruz began the race polling at 2 percent. His father was born in Cuba and fought with Fidel Castro before his government embraced communism, then fled for Texas with $100 sewn into his underwear.

Cruz was born in Canada while his parents were there working in the oil fields. He refuses to say if he holds dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship.

Cruz became a debate champion while at Princeton and has a law degree from Harvard. His fiery, populist oratory made him a grassroots favorite and he spent than two years shaking hands with pastors during Bible study groups at Denny's, chatting up Republican women's gatherings around the state, and attending dozens of candidate forums Dewhurst skipped.

Dewhurst had the support of the state's conservative establishment, including popular Republican Gov. Rick Perry, had overseen the state Senate since 2003, and poured more than $20 million of his own personal fortune into his campaign.

It wasn't enough. Cruz convinced tea party activists that his opponent was a closet moderate because Dewhurst sometimes comprised with Democrats in the state Legislature to get key bills approved.

Cruz's primary win vaulted him into the national spotlight. He spoke at the Republican National Convention and became a regular on national political talk shows. He has since moved hard to the center and mended fences with the Texas Republican mainstream — even attending fundraisers with Dewhurst and Perry.

Cruz is the first Hispanic from Texas to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

VIRGINIA

Virginia Sen.-elect Tim Kaine almost stumbled into politics, but reached elite levels in the Democratic Party nationally with a diverse partisan pedigree.

The son of an Overland Park, Kan., ironworker, Kaine easily could have become a Republican. At Harvard Law School, he met the daughter of A. Linwood Holton, Virginia's first GOP governor since Reconstruction. They married and moved to Richmond, Va.

"For me, bipartisanship begins at home," Kaine says at nearly every public appearance.

Beliefs forged of his Roman Catholic upbringing and a year as a missionary in Honduras led him into a law practice focused on civil rights, and that morphed into Democratic politics. He won a Richmond City Council seat in 1994 and served as mayor for a term.

He entered statewide politics unexpectedly only after state Sen. Emily Couric, the sister of Katie Couric, was forced to abandon her bid for lieutenant governor after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kaine took her spot on the Democratic ticket and was elected in 2001. Four years later, he was elected to succeed fellow Democrat Mark Warner, making Kaine Virginia's first Catholic governor.

In February 2007, Kaine hitched his future to the longshot presidential bid of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and became the first statewide elected official outside Obama's home state Illinois to endorse him.

The morning after Obama's 2008 election, Kaine huddled with a gaggle of reporters on the Virginia Capitol lawn and, when asked what positions he'd consider in Obama's administration, flatly ruled out serving as Democratic National Committee chairman. Less than two months later, he began a two-year stretch in that very position, one of those years shared with final year as governor.

Kaine had intended to stay in the job through Obama's first term, but when Democratic Sen. Jim Webb announced he would not seek re-election in February 2011, Kaine faced heavy pressure from within his party to run against another former governor, Republican George Allen, and keep the seat — and possibly control of the Senate — in Democratic hands.

With Obama's blessing, Kaine handed his DNC duties over to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and began reassembling the campaign team from his 2005 gubernatorial victory.

Ironically, Kaine capitalized on partisan gridlock in Congress to portray Allen as a brutish, uncompromising partisan who once exhorted fellow Republicans to knock the Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats."

WISCONSIN

Tammy Baldwin is used to firsts. And while her victory in Wisconsin's Senate race doesn't break ground for Democrats — the seat has been under their control since 1957 — it does mark the first time the state has elected a woman to the Senate. She is also the first openly gay candidate ever elected to the Senate.

In 1998, she became the first woman from Wisconsin elected to the U.S. House.

Baldwin defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who many people thought would walk away with the Senate race given his deep connection with Wisconsin and voters after serving as a popular governor for 14 years.

Baldwin ran a disciplined and well-funded campaign, turning the tide on the race in the weeks after the mid-August Republican primary that Thompson won but left his campaign broke and him admittedly exhausted.

Consistently ranked among the most liberal members of Congress, Baldwin served seven terms representing the capital city of Madison before running for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Herb Kohl.

Baldwin, 50, was born to a teenage mother and raised by her grandparents. When she was 9, she was struck with an illness that put her in the hospital for three months. Her grandparents didn't have insurance for her and made huge sacrifices to pay her medical bills, she said.

Baldwin has spent most of her adult life in politics. She was first elected to the Dane County Board at age 24, just two years after she graduated from Smith College with a double major in political science and mathematics.

From there she was elected as the youngest woman ever to the state Assembly, at age 30. She served three terms before going to Congress in 1999. She was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote every two years since 2002.

Baldwin has been a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama's health care reform law, even advocating for more government control and a single payer system before she ran for office. During the campaign, she said she would focus on making sure the law as passed is implemented and not seek a broadening of its scope.

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Compiled by Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud, Dave Collins, Oskar Garcia, Tom Davies, Glenn Adams, Steve LeBlanc, Margery A. Beck, Jeri Clausing, Dale Wetzel, Will Weissert, Bob Lewis and Scott Bauer.