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Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin wants to be the first openly gay candidate elected to the United States Senate. In an exclusive interview with The National Memo over the weekend, she made clear how she means to go about doing it: running straight at the Tea Party.

Suggesting the GOP will face an historic rebuke in the 2012 elections just two years after Tea Party activists helped to sweep it into power, Baldwin pinned her candidacy on the two pillars of the modern progressive movement that have both faced concerted assaults from newly-elected Midwestern governors in the past year: strong unions and a robust welfare state.

“I can promise you 2012 is a very different election year,” she said Saturday. “When [Governor] Scott Walker and [Congressman] Paul Ryan started to attack everything we hold dear as Wisconsinites, our rich progressive history, our belief in a strong retirement, people in Wisconsin stood up and became organized and engaged.” Walker led a successful effort to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees and Ryan’s Medicare privatization scheme passed in the U.S. House only to die in the Senate last year.

“I was raised by my grandparents,” Baldwin said. “I learned at a much younger age than many people about the important role that Social Security and Medicare play in retirement security for our seniors. These are national success stories and we have to make them stronger and available to everybody and not weaken them as Paul Ryan proposed and end Medicare as we know it for those 55 and under.”

Though veteran Democratic Senator and progressive hero Russ Feingold was unseated by Tea Party-backed businessman Ron Johnson just 14 months ago, Baldwin articulated a vision of her own bid for the Senate as an opportunity to carry on his legacy — and directly confront the movement that at least until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street was by far the most politically potent in America.

“Even in the months since the 2010 election, Russ Feingold has continued to be a leader,” she said, referring to his new group “Progressives United” that seeks to fight back against the influence of corporate money on politics. “And I could not support his efforts more. I want to be elected to the U.S. Senate to carry on his tradition.”

Baldwin ripped the pending settlement between most state attorneys general and the biggest banks over robosigning and other mortgage abuses that have become widespread since the housing meltdown in 2007 and 2008. And she predicted that public disillusionment with the massive influx of anonymous, unlimited money into campaigns since Citizens United and other 2010 Supreme Court rulings struck down much of Feingold’s signature 2002 campaign finance law would eventually lead to new reforms.

“The public has to be engaged at really understanding at a guttural level how bad Citizens United is. They understand the influence it had in the 2010 elections and they’re disgusted with the television lies we’re seeing where you can’t even tell who’s buying it. I hope it leaves a bad enough taste in so many peoples’ mouths that [even incumbent] Senators realize it goes at the core of our democracy.”

If there is to be a settlement between the Feds and the big banks over foreclosure abuses, it has to be narrow in terms of letting financial companies off the hook — and much more generous to consumers than what is currently on the table.

“Any settlement amount has to begin to make people whole again. We can’t give them [the banks] blanket immunity. If there’s a settlement, it has to be very narrow settlement of a narrow issue and we should absolutely agree the investigation shouldn’t stop. [It’s essential] that we don’t settle for pennies to the dollar when we have a trillion dollars of damage.”

Baldwin made clear where she thinks American politics is headed, sounding a confident but combative tone heading into what is certain to be a raucous and unusually expensive election season. Her success will depend in part on how well she can absorb the momentum of the anti-Scott Walker labor protests and the Occupy movement. She has strong support but trails narrowly in the latest polls pitting her against likely Republican candidate and former Governor Tommy Thompson.

“They’re really frustrated and they don’t think the people in Washington and Madison get it,” she said of voters in her state. “They want someone who will stand up for them, not for Wall Street, not for the Tea Party, but for them. That’s why I’m running.”


Follow Political Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny


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