RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week, Wisconsin voters made history by electing the nation's first openly gay candidate to the U.S. Senate. But Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's sexual orientation was never really a factor in her campaign against Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson. And, as NPR's David Schaper reports, advocates for gay rights see that as a watershed moment.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The celebration Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin was euphoric, as Tammy Baldwin won a U.S. Senate seat - many thought she couldn't - defeating one of the state's most successful politicians in the process.
SENATOR-ELECT TAMMY BALDWIN: And I am well aware that I will be the first openly gay member...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SCHAPER: The enthusiastic crowd was never louder than in that moment, when Baldwin acknowledged making history. And afterwards, supporters remained beyond thrilled.
LINDA WILLSEY: Super night. I'm just sky high. I can't believe it. I can't believe it. Dreams do come true in politics.
SCHAPER: Linda Willsey has known Tammy Baldwin for more than 25 years.
WILLSEY: The fact that she's the first openly lesbian woman candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat is great, but that's not why she won. It wasn't even an issue in this race.
SCHAPER: In fact, the words gay candidate were rarely if ever spoken on the campaign trail, as Baldwin instead mostly talked about two other words - middle class. Analysts say Baldwin won primarily on the same issues as President Obama in Wisconsin, including the economy. Katie Belanger is executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a statewide gay rights advocacy group.
KATIE BELANGER: No one was questioning whether or not she could lead because of her sexual orientation and that's amazing.
SCHAPER: Belanger says the fact that Wisconsin voters didn't seem to care about Baldwin's sexual orientation, combined with Tuesday's victories for marriage equality in neighboring Minnesota and three other states, represents a major step forward.
BELANGER: I think that when we look back on the movement for LGBT equality, we're going to look at November 6, 2012 as a significant turning point, if not the turning point in this movement.
SCHAPER: For Baldwin, the milestone of being the first openly gay candidate elected to the U.S. Senate is the latest in a series of firsts. She was the first openly gay candidate elected to the Wisconsin assembly, and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress. And based on those experiences, Baldwin says this historic election changes things in one specific way.
BALDWIN: If you are not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you're in the room, the conversation is with you, and that has a very transformative effect.
SCHAPER: Baldwin says she doesn't have a specific gay rights agenda she'll immediately push in the Senate, saying her top priority will be the issues she talked about in the campaign, including preserving Medicare, middle-class tax cuts, creating jobs and fixing the economy. But she too notes that what happened Tuesday reflects a sea change in voters' attitudes towards gays, lesbians and marriage equality in just a few short years.
BALDWIN: There were several glass ceilings smashed on Tuesday and I'm proud to have been one of those.
SCHAPER: To be sure, Baldwin and others say the gay rights movement still has a long way to go, but never before have they gained so much on one Election Day. David Schaper, NPR News.