MADISON, Wis. - Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin spoke to the media less than 24 hours after she defeated Republican Leah Vukmir in a race that was called before the polls officially closed in Wisconsin.
Baldwin shared her thoughts on how she would like to "fix" or "improve" the federal Affordable Care Act and her plans to pass a farm bill. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity
Rose: How are you feeling after last night's win?
Senator Baldwin: I am feeling very excited, and I am so grateful for the voters of Wisconsin, actually across party lines -- Democrats, Independents and Republicans -- for standing up, especially to the powerful special interests who spent over $14 million trying to defeat me. I really think what that boiled down to was people were recognizing that folks from out of state wanted a senator who would be inclined to do their bidding, and they're saying, 'Wait a second. We need a voice for us.' And in the mess that's Washington right now, we need to make Washington work for Wisconsin, and they know that's what I've always been about. So I'm just so grateful to Wisconsin voters for themselves, finding their own power, participating and voting.
Rose: And speaking of Washington, you talked a lot last night about unity and divisive politics. Do you think Democrats winning the House will help that, or could it go in the opposite direction?
Senator Baldwin: I think that having the Democratically-led House is actually going to make a powerful difference, and in many ways, it's really up to the president whether he is going to, if he'll negotiate with Congress -- both houses -- or not.
We have to work on a bipartisan basis all the time if we're going to get anything through. And so I think with a Republican president, a Senate that needs to operate on a bipartisan fashion and a Democratically-led House, that we can get some things done. Proof will be in the pudding, but that's where I intend to go and work really hard to do.
Rose: Do you think that the results last night, with Democrats winning across statewide races in Wisconsin, is a mandate that voters want to see something in Wisconsin that's different from what they've seen in the past?
Senator Baldwin: I have to say I was very proud of the campaign that we ran. It was one that really encouraged participation, and it started with people working on issues that were close to them: health care, making this economy work for everyone, including our dairy farmers and our manufacturing workers, and then, it began to pivot towards the elections.
That was a really incredible result in my race last night, and I'm so grateful for that, and it was also just an honor to jump on Tony Evers' school bus, with the entire ticket, with Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes, Josh Kaul, State Treasurer-elect Sarah Godlewski, and just travel the state as a team talking about the power of people's voice when they vote and making progress on things that really matter to families across this state.
Rose: The health care debate just dominated this entire election and your race in particular. Do you think that made the difference between you and Democrats getting elected and Republicans getting elected?
Senator Baldwin: I think that health care is just an issue that is so deeply personal, and I don't know that it would have gotten nearly as much attention had there not been that big battle in the Congress last year where Republicans attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act..
And then, in the 11thhour of this campaign when, Republicans across the country, but certainly in this state said, 'Oh no, no, we're for keeping protections for people with pre-existing conditions,' -- it wasn't believable. And so, I think we have a real opportunity now to strengthen the health care system. There's going to be leadership at the state level. We need to rid of that horrible lawsuit that would take health care away.
Rose: You told me just a few weeks ago that you'd like to actually fix and improve the Affordable Care Act. Are there things that you think specifically should be changed about that law?
Senator Baldwin: Absolutely. In the effort of either 'all or nothing,' 'keep it or get rid of it,' we have failed sadly to work on a bi-partisan basis to say, 'This is the system we have. Let's make it a lot better. And let's look at new and innovative ideas to improve beyond that.'
One of the things that I'd like to see for the affordability side is get rid of what we call a 'cliff.' Right now, there's help for people who are low income to pay their premiums. But at a certain point, there's just a cliff, and it drops off. And so, people making just a little bit more find that they're paying full freight. I think we should let that ramp down in a more affordable way for people so there's not just a cliff in that. And I think that would really help so many people who are struggling to afford the premiums. I think we have to incent competition. There shouldn't be counties in Wisconsin -- or anywhere -- where there's only one choice in the Affordable Care Act for health. And we can do that by a number of different policies, but one would include allowing Medicare or Medicaid to offer a plan that’s in competition, and we would keep prices low. So, I think we should be looking at all of these ideas and pressing ahead, finding bipartisan ground and doing it.
Rose: What’s the first thing you plan on doing when you go back to Washington?
Senator Baldwin: Well, the first thing is passing a farm bill. We’re so close, but with a crisis in our agricultural sector right now, our dairy farmers need trade deals that are good -- not trade wars. And we’re losing -- last year, 500 -- dairy farms. This year, on pace to outdo that. Six hundred maybe? That’s devastating. That’s our tradition in Wisconsin. So we have to pass a farm bill that does right by all of our farmers. And the new Congress will be sworn in, and I think health care has to be very, very soon -- first thing on the agenda, I hope.
Rose: Are there other top priorities that you anticipate pushing over the next six years?
Senator Baldwin: One of the things that I was really hopeful that we would do in the first two years of the Trump administration but sadly it didn't come to full fruition is infrastructure. Part of the battle -- I know it was second fiddle to health care and education -- but we have crumbling roads and bridges all over the state of Wisconsin. The state legislature and the current governor have been unable to figure out how to pay for anything, and things have deteriorated further, but President Trump said infrastructure and Buy America policies were one of his highest priorities. It hasn't come to pass, but there’s strong bipartisan support, and if we come up with a good plan, I think that we could pass something overwhelmingly. And I want to fight for those Buy America provisions that say, 'We’re doing it with U.S. products and U.S. workers.'