Openly gay Sen. Tammy Baldwin could make history if Biden picks her as his vice presidential running mate

Key Points
  • Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin could become the first openly gay vice presidential candidate in history.
  • Baldwin has been a leader on many progressive issues, a record that could help the moderate Biden attract voters from the party's left flank. And she's from Wisconsin, a critical swing state. 
Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Larry French | Getty Images

Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin could become the first openly gay vice presidential candidate in history.

Baldwin is one of the top 10 potential running mates on 2020 presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's list, according to reports.

Baldwin has acknowledged that she is in regular contact with the campaign but has not said whether she is being vetted. "Were he to ask me to be his vice president, I would surely say yes," Baldwin recently told Milwaukee's NBC affiliate WTMJ. "But I will keep my conversations in confidence . We just need to win."

A Baldwin spokesman told CNBC in an email on Monday, "The Senator and the campaign haven't been discussing the content of her conversations with the Vice President and the campaign and won't go into the process. She feels that the process is the Vice President's to conduct and will leave it to his team to provide any comments."

Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to Congress and the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, is well-liked among her peers, according to Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts who is also gay. 

The two served together in the House from 2009 to 2013, when he retired and she moved on to the Senate. Frank came out after he was elected. He said Baldwin has many qualities that would make her a good choice, including her record as a reliable progressive. 

"She's an extraordinary woman," said Frank, who notes that she's never lost an election. "She's the first out LGBT person elected to Congress." 

Not long ago, it would have been too risky to choose a gay running mate, but attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, said Paul Nolette, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Wisconsin's Marquette University.

A Gallup poll from June found that 67% of voters believe gay marriage should be legal, up from 27% in 1996.

In April 2019, a Quinipiac University poll found that 70% of voters would be "open to electing a president who is a gay man," the question a nod to the candidacy of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. That poll also found that 92% of Americans thought that an employer should not be able to fire someone based on sexual orientation.

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling that protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from being fired or turned down for a job based on their sexual orientation.

Far from hurting Biden's prospects, a ground-breaking decision to include Baldwin could energize voters, Nolette said. "Democratic voters do get excited about firsts," he said. "Having the first LGBT individual on the ticket would be an advantage."

Progressive record

But there's more than sexual orientation that makes Baldwin a compelling pick.

She's relatively young at age 58, a good balance to Biden's 77.

And Baldwin has been a leader on many progressive issues, a record that could help the moderate Biden attract voters from the party's left flank.

She's been an advocate for a single-payer health-care program for more two decades and was one of 14 sponsors of Sen. Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" bill.

She voted against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002, one of 133 representatives to do so.

More recently, she pledged to support House Democrats' Justice in Policing Act in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

And she has managed to embrace progressive priorities without alienating more moderate elements of the party.

"By being an active, thoughtful progressive, she's bridged gaps that are hard to do," said Frank. "She's able to take very strong progressive substantive positions without scaring people."

There's another obvious factor that put her on the short list: She's from Wisconsin. 

The swing state could ultimately decide the election. Having Baldwin on the ticket could help get out the vote in the critical state that President Donald Trump won in 2016 by a razor thin margin, the first time it went to a Republican since 1984.

Biden is ahead of Trump by 5.4 points in Wisconsin, according to a RealClearPolitics statewide polling average. But the election is still five months away.

"A senator from a very important swing state electoral wise will be on anyone's list," said Nolette. "Wisconsin keeps coming back as one of most likely tipping point states — it could decide the election." 

Baldwin's backstory is also compelling. Her mother suffered from mental illness and opioid addiction, leaving Baldwin to be raised by her maternal grandparents. Despite the challenges at home, she became valedictorian of her high school class in 1980 and was first elected to political office in 1986 at age 24, when she won a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. She has a law degree from the University of Wisconsin's law school.

But Baldwin's prospects are jeopardized by the same issues faced by several others in the running for Biden's No. 2 spot.

"She's not Black, and she's not Elizabeth Warren," said Frank. "Those are the two major factors going against her."

Indeed, in today's heated political environment where Americans have for weeks been protesting police brutality and racial injustice, conventional wisdom has it that Biden must pick a Black running mate. Meanwhile, Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is a far more outspoken progressive who is revered by many on the left. She would be the more obvious choice for attracting reluctant young progressives. 

'Put a woman of color on the ticket'

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sean Rayford | Getty Images

On Thursday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar removed herself from the veepstakes, becoming the latest voice calling on Biden to pick a woman of color. 

"I think the right thing to do right now, and I told this to Vice President Biden, is to put a woman of color on the ticket as the next vice president of our country," Klobuchar told CBS News. "I think it would be something that would help heal the United States," she added. "I think it is something that would really take what has been a tragedy, but also a galvanizing moment and turn it into a moment of joy. And I think our country is looking for that right now."

Among a substantial list of qualified Black candidates, Sen. Kamala Harris of California is considered the front-runner by most watchers.

"I'd put Harris at the top," said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton. "She covers a lot of areas — she's African American, she's articulate, it looks like she could fall into the job. I could easily see her put out the case against Trump."

Other women of color are also reportedly under consideration, including Rep. Val Demings —a former Orlando police chief; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; President Barack Obama's former national security advisor Susan Rice; and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for governor of Georgia in 2018.

Frank is skeptical about allowing current events to dictate such a critical choice.

"A couple months ago if you were picking a vice president, you would not have taken into account George Floyd's murder," Frank said. "Why take that into consideration now when something else might happen in two months?"

He suggests picking a running mate on the fundamentals: Who would be the best vice president and who could help the ticket win in November.

Biden's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But he has said he hopes to announce his choice by August

But there's one more significant knock against Baldwin's candidacy. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is a Democrat, but the governor by state law is not allowed to appoint a replacement. There would have to be a special election, said Nolette.

With Democrats determined to win back the Senate, or at a minimum add to their ranks, losing Baldwin's seat would likely be too big of a risk.

"Every seat is going to count," said Nolette. "I'm skeptical that Biden will pick someone who could potentially throw the Senate to the Republicans."