The Crucial 3rd District

If Democrats find a way to hang on to the 3rd Congressional District in Southwestern Wisconsin this fall, it will almost certainly mean that Gov. Tony Evers will win a second term, that Sen. Ron Johnson will be defeated and that the Democrats will hold the Senate and stem their losses in the House.

The 3rd is one of only two competitive districts in Wisconsin. It was held down for decades by the popular Ron Kind, but Kind only narrowly won in 2020 and he decided to retire this year. The district was won by Donald Trump twice, but it only shades Republican (rated as a +5 district for the GOP) and the Cook Political Report has it “leaning Republican” this year.

In what will almost certainly be a bad mid-term election for Democrats, if they were to somehow hold on to this seat, it would mean that they were doing better than expected in other places. And even a narrow victory here would almost guarantee that Evers and the Democrat running against Johnson would win.

So what are their chances? Not bad, I’d say. The Dems will have a strong candidate to replace Kind and the Republicans have an extreme insurrectionist running on their ticket.

The likely Democratic nominee is Brad Pfaff. I had a chance to sit down with his brother, former Fitchburg Mayor Shawn Pfaff, last week. Shawn is a close advisor to his brother. It was an enjoyable conversation. The Pfaff’s are the sort of non-nonsense, practically-minded Democrats who the party should be listening to more often.

Brad and Shawn Pfaff grew up on the family farm and their father was active in local politics. Brad served as Ag Secretary under Evers and he’s now a State Senator representing La Crosse and a good chunk of the Congressional District. His tenure as Secretary was cut short when legislative Republicans blocked his nomination because he had the audacity to criticize them when they refused to fund a mental health program for stressed farmers that Pfaff was fighting for.

So, Pfaff has deep roots in the district, understands farming from both a hands-on and a policy perspective, has already won an election in a substantial part of the district, and perhaps most importantly, he’s the right kind of Democrat.

State. Sen. Brad Pfaff can win in rural Wisconsin.

Democrats used to know how to win in rural parts of the state, but that skill has been lost to most of the party. The strategy now is to run up big numbers in Dane and Milwaukee counties and leave the rest of the state to the GOP. That works sometimes — just barely — in statewide races. But it will never work to take back the legislature or to add seats in Congress. For that the party has to find a way to win again in rural Wisconsin.

If anybody can do that it’s Pfaff.

“Ron Kind and Steve Gunderson worked to bring civility and find consensus by always reaching across the aisle and finding common ground. That’s the 3rd District,” Pfaff recently told the Eau Claire Leader Telegram. “I try to take the same approach.” Gunderson was a moderate Republican who preceded Kind.

Pfaff contrasted that approach with the extremism of his certain Republican opponent Derrick Van Orden. Van Orden travelled to Washington DC in January, 2021 to be part of Donald Trump’s protests against the results of a free and fair election. Worse, Van Orden has apparently lied about his role there. He claimed to not have been on the Capitol grounds, but social media posts show him in restricted areas that day.

Pfaff isn’t spending much time on Van Orden’s role in the Insurrection, though. Instead, he charges Van Orden with focussing on hot-button social issues instead of the practical concerns that impact the lives of average people. “I am confident that voters have rejected that in the past here in western Wisconsin and they’ll do it again this fall,” Pfaff said.

In short, Republican, Democratic and independent voters in the 3rd like sensible moderates of either party. That describes Pfaff and it most definitely does not fit for Van Orden.

Before he takes on Van Orden, Pfaff will have to best three other candidates in the primary on August 9th: Eau Claire business owner and nonprofit founder Rebecca Cooke, former CIA officer and U.S. Army Capt. Deb Baldus McGrath of Menomonie and retired pediatric critical care physician Mark Neumann of La Crosse. His opponents are fine candidates who could help rebuild a Democratic base in rural Wisconsin, but Pfaff is the best candidate to take on Van Orden this year.

If you agree, why don’t you visit Pfaff’s website and maybe send him a couple of bucks for the cause. His race could be the bellwether for moderate Democrats — and the party itself — all over the country this fall.

Want to read more about how moderates can take back America? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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