Baldwin Snags Johanson for Senate Campaign

Posted October 12, 2011 at 6:32pm

A Democratic big gun is headed to Wisconsin to manage Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s (D) campaign for retiring Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D) seat.

Karin Johanson is taking leave from her position as a principal at the Dewey Square Group and is headed to Milwaukee as soon as she lines up office space in the area.

A veteran of political campaigns and the Hill, Johanson was not looking to run a Senate campaign, but the pull of Wisconsin politics and a personal history with Baldwin proved a strong draw for the operative.

“It’s a very interesting race,” she said. She noted that while Wisconsin is not a giant state, it involves a great deal of retail politicking and said one of Baldwin’s strengths is her ability to connect with voters.

Johanson was at EMILY’s List when she came to know the Congresswoman in 1998 when Baldwin first ran for Congress. According to National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, EMILY’s List accounted for a quarter of Baldwin’s campaign funding in that race. Johanson also ran Baldwin’s 2002 campaign for re-election.

While Baldwin appears to have a clear shot at the Democratic nomination, several Republicans — including former Gov. Tommy Thompson — are vying for the Senate seat next year.

Johanson did not comment on which candidate she hoped Baldwin would face. “My attitude about primaries is that there’s not much you can do about them,” she said. However, she said, the campaign will be prepared.

Johanson strongly contests the notion that Baldwin is too liberal to win a statewide election in Wisconsin, a swing state that elected a Republican governor and tossed out then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in 2010. Johanson also said that Baldwin, who became the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, has been underestimated before.

“People didn’t think she could win,” she said of Baldwin’s first race, which involved a competitive three-way primary.

She also stressed that Baldwin’s safely Democratic 2nd district is more culturally diverse than the college town for which it is known. She stressed that it is equal parts Madison, suburban and rural.

Johanson bristled at the notion that Baldwin’s sexual orientation — and the fact that she would make history as the first openly gay Senator — will define the campaign.

“The people of Wisconsin want this to be about their concerns: the economy and jobs,” she said.

As for her own career, Johanson has spent more than 25 years working in Democratic politics. The Princeton, N.J., native has worked on national and statewide campaigns. She also worked for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Capitol Hill as chief of staff and as press secretary.

However, it was her tenure as executive director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that might have been her finest hour. She ran the committee for the latter part of the 2006 cycle under then-Chairman Rahm Emanuel, and the effort won back the House for Democrats after 12 years of Republican control.

“Winning is always more thrilling than not winning,” she said. “It was exciting.”

Since she joined the Dewey Square Group in 2007, she has worked on grass-roots campaigns for telecommunications, technology and financial reform issues.

Roll Call rates the Wisconsin Senate race a Tossup.