MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After two years of heart-wrenching defeats, capped by Republican Gov. Scott Walker's recall victory this summer, Wisconsin Democrats were on an unrelenting losing streak.
And when popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson decided to run for U.S. Senate, Republicans appeared poised for yet another prominent win that would give them control of both Wisconsin's Senate seats for the first time since the 1950s.
But there would be no GOP sweep.
President Barack Obama fired up his turnout machine and made winning Wisconsin a priority, pouring star power and money into the state. And fellow Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a liberal congresswoman who had never run in a statewide election, put together a well-funded, disciplined and smart campaign in the face of long odds against an opponent so well-known that most people simply call him "Tommy."
It paid off: Both Obama and Baldwin won their tight races Tuesday, keeping alive Wisconsin's tradition as a state that doesn't stay all blue or all red for too long.
The victories were the biggest scores for Democrats since Obama's surprising 14-point win in Wisconsin in 2008 that left Republicans sullen and confused. The GOP found itself in a similar position Tuesday night.
"We're all quite stunned at the results because we had such an energized base, the independents were falling our way," said Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of Mitt Romney's Wisconsin campaign. "People were coming out of the woodwork to help. Maybe we were just not dealing with the real reality."
Republicans did, however, regain control of the state Senate and maintained their majority in the Assembly — once again giving the GOP full control of state government. Still, the Obama and Baldwin victories were significant for Democrats who were downtrodden just five months ago when Walker survived the recall, said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
"We were never as blue as we looked in '08, we were never as red as we looked in '10," Tate said in an interview. "It's a narrowly divided state."
With her win, Baldwin will become the first female U.S. senator from Wisconsin and the first openly gay candidate to win election to the Senate. Her victory also handed the 70-year-old Thompson his first loss in a statewide election and likely spells the end of his storied political career.
Republicans were searching for a silver lining in the national losses, and they found it with the GOP winning back the state Senate. That returned state government to where it was before a Republican loss in a recall election in June gave Democrats a narrow one-vote majority in the Senate, though that Democratic majority was largely symbolic since the legislative session doesn't begin until January.