Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

There she goes again, making history.

Liberal congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin ended Republican Tommy Thompson's four-decade political career, winning 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday in the state's bitterly fought US Senate race. Baldwin will be the first openly gay senator in the institution's history and Wisconsin's first female senator, just as she became the first openly gay Wisconsin State assemblywoman in 1992, and the first openly gay candidate to win a US House election in 1998. Baldwin knows the significance of her election: "Sometimes I think my most significant contribution is not the legislative initiatives I introduce, but the stereotypes I shatter."

Baldwin said that in 1993. During her victory speech Tuesday night, she downplayed her history-making win. "I didn't run to make history; I ran to make a difference," she said. "A difference in the lives of students worried about debt and seniors worried about their retirement security."

That comment speaks volumes about the campaign run by Baldwin and her team. They didn't tout Baldwin as a pathbreaker; instead they pitched her to Wisconsinites across the state as a champion of working people and an avowed defender of Wisconsin manufacturing.

Baldwin's first campaign ad set the tone: It was a broadside against China's currency manipulation and a full-throated defense of Wisconsin's paper industry. "In Wisconsin, we lead the entire nation in paper industry jobs," Baldwin said. "But China, they lead the world in cheating." You could imagine a tea partier saying that—but a Democrat from Dane County, Wisconsin, a bastion of liberalism "surrounded by reality"?

Political experts praised Baldwin's decision to focus on economics and jobs. "You're talking about someone stepping outside the stereotypes and representing herself in a way that is right up the alley of job creation," Charles Franklin, a political scientist who oversees Marquette University's polling, told me this summer. "I don't think you can win on just the paper issue, but she's chosen the issue that seems to me to have the potential for much broader appeal."

Baldwin's focus on manufacturing and blue-collar workers, and also the discipline and hard work I saw her put in on the trail this summer paid off in the end. "I think Tammy ran a flawless race," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "She was unflappable."

Tommy Thompson...not so much. He courted controversy during his campaign by, for instance, claiming he was the man to "do away with Medicare." His years as a Washington lobbyist and the money he made from that gig dogged him all the way to Election Day. (Wisconsin Democrats made sure of that.)

Thompson, who served four terms as Wisconsin governor, also began his battle with Baldwin short on cash after a tough primary fight. He raised $7.4 million for his Senate campaign, well short of Baldwin's $12.6 million haul. As the general election got underway Baldwin used her financial advantage to blitz the airwaves with ads supporting her. Both candidates saw outside money-funded ads hammer them. Of the $66 million spent in the Baldwin-Thompson race—a state record, by the way—almost $46 million came from super-PACs and nonprofit groups.

Thompson led Baldwin in the polls right after his mid-August primary win, but Baldwin's barrage and finely tuned message paid off. She took the lead in the race in late September, and never relinquished it.

Until Tuesday night, the anti-gay rights movement had been undefeated at the ballot box, winning every single time same-sex marriage rights had been put to a popular vote. Thirty-two states had voted to restrict same-sex marriage, including deep blue California.

Then last night, for the first time ever, as my colleague Kate Sheppard noted last night, Americans voted to legalize same-sex marriage through statewide referendums in three states: Maine, Washington and Maryland, while defeating a proposed amendment to the Minnesota state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. After losing at the ballot box thirty-two times, last night supporters of marriage equality swept all four contests where those rights were put to a vote. 

Anti-gay rights activists have worked for years to build up firewalls in the states against same-sex marriage, hoping to hold off the tide of historical inevitability. In several of theses contests, polls that showed support for marriage equality ahead would turn out to be painfully wrong when the votes were counted. Opponents of same-sex marriage read this as proof that in the privacy of the voting booth, their moral vision would prevail. The National Organization for Marriage saw their path to victory in peeling off socially conservative and religious minority voters who usually vote for Democrats and enlisting them in the fight against same-sex marriage rights. Internal documents showed that NOM believed that by putting forth black and Latino spokespeople, they could discredit the idea of same-sex marriage as a civil rights cause and drive a wedge between two typically Democratic constitutencies. In several states, legislatures passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage, but NOM's frequent wins at the ballot box whenever same-sex marriage rights were put to a popular vote, they argued, proved that the arc of history did not necessarily bend towards marriage equality.

That changed Tuesday night, as voters went to the polls in three states and voted to grant same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual ones. The results are harbingers of the future in several crucial ways: LGBT activists' win in Maryland, which has a large population of black voters, suggests that NOM's racist wedge strategy is crumbling. With the Supreme Court potentially taking cases challenging the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage in the near future, the Justices may see wins in Maryland, Washington (if the lead holds) and Maine as a sign that if they ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights, they would not be seen as foisting a drastic cultural change on a country that is not prepared to recieve it. Instead, the Justices assumed to be on the fence, like Anthony Kennedy, could be more easily persuaded that this is a cause whose time has come. 

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides however, this is the beginning of the end for the anti-marriage equality movement. They long ago began to lose in the courts and state legislatures. Now they have begun losing at the polls. This battle may go on for years, but there is no longer any doubt about the outcome. 

Mia Love speaks at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Utah Republicans must be apoplectic today. Despite gerrymandering his district for the second time in a decade, despite the presence of a Mormon GOP presidential candidate on the ballot, and even after spending a combined $5 million, the GOP has once again failed to rid the state of its last remaining congressional Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson.

This year, the Republicans took their best shot yet at Matheson, who has survived a host of close races in his career. In this election cycle, Matheson faced a surprisingly strong candidate, Mia Love, the Haitian-American, Mormon, tea party conservative mayor of Saratoga Springs. Starting out as a virtual unknown, the telegenic part-time fitness instructor and former flight attendant landed a major speaking slot at the Republican convention in Tampa and became a national media darling. The party's biggest names stumped for Love in Utah, bringing her from a double-digit polling deficit in the spring to a five-point lead right before the election. The race shattered state spending records, and at $10 million, became the most expensive House race in state history. But in the end, even robocalls from Mitt Romney weren't enough to push Love into the winner's circle.

There had been much fear among Democrats that Utah voters would simply vote a straight GOP ticket thanks to Romney's presence at the top. But at least in the 4th District, where Matheson was running, that simply wasn't the case. The results of the election seemed to prove that Matheson knew what he was talking about when he told me this summer that Utahans are not the straight-ticket Republican voters they're often made out to be. He said his constituents really are true independent voters who vote the person, not the party.

Love's tea party policy views may have been too extreme even for one of the nation's reddest states (she even supported ending the federal school lunch program), though it's almost certain that she suffered from her campaign's disorganization. Despite reinforcements from Washington, Love's campaign was plagued with logistical problems (she stood up Romney when she was supposed to introduce him at the NAACP convention), staff turnover and embarrassing media episodes. After Mother Jones raised questions about the story she'd been telling about her family's immigration history, Love's campaign tried to deflect some of the fallout by releasing an internal poll claiming she had taken a 13-point lead in the race.

Love's campaign seemed unable to manage even the basic paperwork required to rent a table at a Utah teachers' convention this fall, a mishap that left her wandering the exhibit hall handing out flyers in violation of the rules. Making the jump from mayor of a town of 18,000 (where Love was elected with a mere 800 or so votes) to member of Congress representing more than 700,000 people in a brand-new district, required a well-coordinated ground game, and that's probably where Matheson outhustled Love. Matheson prevailed by only about 2800 votes, according to the still-unofficial count. But Utah's Democrats, who have been very lukewarm on Matheson because of his conservatism, seem to have rallied to save their voice in Congress. Reports the Deseret News:

Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said his party saw the Romney tsunami coming.

"We worked harder. We knocked on more doors. We organized as we've never done before, and I think it made a difference," he said, citing the work of the newly formed LDS Democrats and other groups for Matheson's win.

Matheson has been criticized by some in his party for being a "Democrat in name only," because of his vote against Obamacare and other key liberal legislation, and they've suggested that it wouldn't matter much for the state whether he was reelected or not. But while Matheson has been a solid Blue Dog Democrat, the differences between him and Love were stark, especially when it came to the environment. Matheson, who was once a lobbyist for a DC environmental group, has been an strong voice in the House for protecting Utah's wilderness and watershed areas. Love campaigned on a platform calling for turning Utah's federal park lands over to the state, which would potentially open them up for mining and drilling.

Despite her loss, Love will probably not disappear from the political scene. She's still mayor of Saratoga Springs, of course. And like Sarah Palin, she clearly has a future as a Fox News analyst. But also, the Romney campaign and the national GOP relied heavily on Love during this year's campaign season to dispel criticism that theirs is a party of old white men. Even if Republicans can't take another shot at redistricting Matheson for another eight or nine years, they can prep Love for a rematch in 2014, and after her embarrassing defeat this week, she will probably be spoiling for a fight.

Each man in the Montana Senate race wanted to prove he was the bigger cowboy. The contest attracted record-breaking campaign donations that worked out to about $16 per cow. And after a long night of ballot counting, the Associated Press announced Wednesday morning that the winner of this Western standoff is seven-fingered incumbent Democrat Jon Tester, whose victory ensures Democrats and their allies will control at least 53 seats in the Senate.

The race between Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg was among the most closely watched of this election cycle, with the two candidates running neck and neck throughout the campaign. Outside groups, including Karl Rove's American Crossroads, spent at least $23 million running attack ads in the state, making it the most expensive race in Montana's history.

Tester, a third-generation farmer, has served on the Senate since 2007. He's pro-choice, supports Obamacare, and voted to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, even though he doesn't support gay marriage. He took a strong stance against the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, predicting it would be "disastrous for our democracy." He even proposed that both he and Rehberg should pledge to refuse any Super PAC or third-party group support during the Senate race—a suggestion that Rehberg shot down.

Rehberg, a fifth-generation rancher, tried to portray himself as a maverick by skipping the Republican National Convention and highlighting his opposition to the Paul Ryan's budget in campaign ads. But the GOPer drew criticism over his enthusiasm for domestic drilling, staunch denial of climate change, and past opposition to AIDS funding. According to Rehberg, "The problem with AIDS is, you get it, you die, so why are we spending any money on people that get it[?]"

A super-PAC funded by Tester supporters made a last-minute $500,000 ad buy for Dan Cox, a libertarian candidate who looks certain to draw more than 5 percent of the vote. The Montana GOP has accused Tester supporters of dirty tricks for allegedly trying to funnel Rehberg votes to Cox. They're right to be peeved: Cox's vote total is currently greater than Tester's winning margin, adding weight to the theory that the libertarian's presence in the race may have made the difference.

This year's Montana Senate race will also be remembered for its strange, entertaining campaign ads: Rehberg supporters made fun of Tester's haircut, accused him of not tipping and said Obama and Tester were twins. The Montana Democratic party tried to frame Rehberg as a drunk and showed Tester bringing Montana beef to Washington. And then there was the ad for Cox showing a guy on a hunting trip with his son shooting out a security camera. Boring, the Montana Senate race was not.

Sgt. Kyle M. Crance, weapons and tactics instructor and CH-46E Sea Knight crew chief, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 (Rein.), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires a M240D machine gun while flying over the Indian Ocean, Oct. 25.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John Robbart III.

The news moved slowly through the crowd. There were no boos, no hisses, no dropped glasses. Country singer Jamie O'Neal and the band had just finished the last song of their set. But there was Fox News anchor Bret Baier, on the big screen at the Republican National Convention's election night party in downtown Washington, soberly delivering the news: President Obama was projected the winner of Ohio's 18 electoral votes.

"That's the presidency," Baier said.

"It's over," added Fox White House correspondent Ed Henry.

Tuesday was an historic first for gay marriage—three times over.

Voters in Maryland, Maine, and Washington all approved ballot measures—by significant margins—allowing gay marriage in their states. Never before have voters gone to the polls in any state and directly approved gay marriage.

Maryland's vote affirms the state legislature's passage of same-sex marriage in February. Maine's reverses a 2009 referendum that blocked gay marriage. Washington state's decision to approve marriage equality builds on its 2009 vote that expanded domestic partnerships to something called, at the time, "everything but marriage."

Meanwhile, marriage rights advocates await a final tally in Minnesota, where a ballot measure asked voters whether to amend the state constitution to explicitly ban gay marriage. Since the state already has a law banning same-sex marriages, a defeat of the measure wouldn't make gay marriage legal.  But it would prevent the state from erecting yet another obstacle to approving them in the future.

UPDATE, 12:40 PDT: Minnesotans have defeated the attempt to amend the state's constituition to ban gay marriage, giving four victories to same-sex marriage supporters.

Update: The Associated Press has called Minnesota's 6th district for Rep. Michele Bachmann, who held off Jim Graves by one point. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Rep. Allen West trails by about 2,500 votes, but the race has not yet been called.

Adding to the GOP's misery on Tuesday night: The continued demise of the tea party wave. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) were both locked in tight races with their Democratic challengers as of early Wednesday morning, with recounts possibly forthcoming. (Update: As of 4 a.m. EST, the district's final tally showed West losing by just under 2,500 votes.) A third ringleader, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), lost to Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth by nine points.

Bachmann's poor performance—she led by just 1244 votes with 91.4 percent of precincts reporting as of 4 a.m. EST—was a reflection of her own dimming popularity in a district she's represented since 2006. She was expected to cruise to re-election after a non-partisan redistricting panel made her suburban Twin Cities seat, already Minnesota's most conservative, even more red. But after a quixotic presidential campaign and a never-ending string of embarrassing statements (such as her assertion that a top Hillary Clinton aide was a Muslim Brotherhood plant), that's not how it turned out. Bachmann faced off against Jim Graves, a Minneapolis hotel magnate who was able to give his campaign seed money and—critically, in a tight race—persuade the Independent Party not to field a candidate in the race. That the race was tightening was evident over the final weeks of the campaign, as Bachmann sought to redefine herself, improbably enough, as a independent-minded deal-breaker capable of working across party lines to bring home pork for her district.

West, a freshman legislator, sought to win a district that went to Obama by just three points in 2008. But he faced a formidable challenger in Patrick Murphy, a former Republican whose family runs a huge contracting business in South Florida. Murphy picked up the backing of national Democrats (Bill Clinton flew to West Palm Beach for a fundraiser) and raised more money than almost any other challenger in the country this fall. He also received a boost from a super-PAC, American Sunrise, seeded with $250,000 from Murphy's father, Thomas. Like Bachmann, West tried to shift attention away from his bomb-throwing rhetoric, running campaign ads portraying himself as a defender of the social safety net, and a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. To wit:

In one of the campaign's most memorable television spots, he drew a contrast between his two-decade military career and Murphy's youth—seizing on a disorderly conduct arrest from 2003, when West was on the verge of shipping to Iraq. (Left unmentioned: The detainee abuse that sparked West's return stateside.) Watch:

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Murphy led West by just over 1,000 votes.

Colorado on Tuesday night became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana, beating out Washington by about an hour.

Barring a legal challenge, anyone over the age of 21 can soon walk into a marijuana dispensary in the Rocky Mountain State and buy some bud—and not the kind made by Anheuser-Busch.

But the fight for legal weed in Colorado and around the country is far from over. Cracking down on pot is still a centerpiece of federal drug enforcement policy, and the feds may try to quash Colorado's legal weed program before it gets started.

When the new Congress is seated in January, it will include a record number of women.

Wins for Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Republican Deb Fischer in Nebraska, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin will make all three the first female senators from their state. And Democratic women successfully defended their Senate seats in Missouri, Minnesota, California, Michigan, Washington, and New York. Meanwhile, Hawaii will send either Democrat Mazie Hirono or Republican Linda Lingle to the Senate, meaning that there will be at least 18 19 women in the Senate—and it could still be 19 20 if Democrat Heidi Heitkamp pulls out a win in North Dakota.*

* It looks like we undercounted in our initial estimate.