Career civil servant vs. culture warrior for Congress
Earlier this month, state Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) and other Democratic candidates for office were marching in a parade for the annual Gays Mills Apple Festival in Crawford County. Pfaff was introducing himself to voters along the route when one woman refused to shake his hand because he’s a Democrat.
He says he shook off the episode, but it shows the uphill battle he’s facing in the election this fall.
Pfaff, the Democratic candidate in the race for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District seat, is facing off against Republican candidate Derrick Van Orden in one of the most closely contested congressional districts in the country and one of the few districts that in 2020 voted for both former President Donald Trump and a Democratic member of Congress.
The two candidates are running to fill the soon-to-be-vacant seat currently held by Rep. Ron Kind, who has held the position since 1996. It’s a rare competitive congressional district which was tilted more toward Republicans in the most recent round of redistricting. And in a deeply polarized but nearly evenly divided state, the race pits two highly distinct styles and temperaments against each other.
A career civil servant who grew up in the district, Pfaff was elected to the state Senate in 2020. He previously served as the secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama and as an agricultural policy aide for both Kind and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl.
Van Orden spent 26 years in the U.S. Navy where he served as a SEAL with five combat deployments. Van Orden and his wife previously lived and operated a cafe in the Village of Butternut, which is in the state’s 7th Congressional District.
Van Orden, whose campaign did not respond to an interview request, also ran for the congressional seat in 2020 and lost to Kind by 2.6 percentage points.
There is just a staggering contrast between these two candidates. If nothing else, voters are going to have a real choice in this election. It’s not one of those elections where voters might complain there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the candidates.
Throughout the campaign, Pfaff has been attempting to highlight alleged faults in Van Orden’s character in judgment. Van Orden attended the rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021 that ultimately escalated into the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Van Orden has said he didn’t enter the Capitol grounds, but reports have disputed that claim. In his book, Van Orden wrote about an incident in which he exposed a lieutenant’s genitals to two female officers. Van Orden was also once fined for attempting to bring a gun onto an airplane in his carry-on luggage and last year he was criticized for berating a teenaged library employee in Prairie du Chien over an LGBTQ pride display.
“We have to point out the fact that Derrick Van Orden doesn’t have the temperament, judgment or character to serve in Congress,” Pfaff says. “But the big thing that we have to point out is that because he’s not from here, he’s an interloper, he doesn’t share our values. He doesn’t understand the people or the communities of this district, he moved here in order to run for office. And so his behavior, from Jan. 6 to the public library to the sexual harassment … to trying to get on an airplane with a loaded handgun, it’s just unbecoming. And it is not who the people of Western Wisconsin — it’s not who we are.”
Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse, says the distinctions between the two candidates couldn’t be broader.
“I think we frequently see differences between candidates in this polarized and divisive era, but rarely do we see such a stark difference between the candidates like we do in the Wisconsin 3rd Congressional District,” Cherogsky says. The gap between the two candidates is enormous in almost every respect. The gap is apparent in the background and biography of the candidates, the gap is apparent in the style of the candidates, the gap is apparent in the resources the candidates have financially and the gap is apparent in the strategic choices the candidates have made and continue to make in this campaign.”
“There is just a staggering contrast between these two candidates,” he adds. “If nothing else, voters are going to have a real choice in this election. It’s not one of those elections where voters might complain there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the candidates.”
Polls and election forecasts show the race leaning toward Van Orden, with the most recent poll showing Van Orden with a 5-point lead.
With that edge, and a national political environment expected to favor Republicans running for the U.S. House, Van Orden has run a campaign that focuses on culture war issues in an attempt to make the election all about national politics — focusing on issues such as immigration at the country’s southern border and preventing tax increases.
“I think it’s a pretty wise strategy,” Chergosky says. “Voters more and more are voting based on national political conditions rather than local political conditions. Derrick Van Orden’s strategy follows a shift in voter psychology.”
For the last 13 congressional elections in this district, Kind has won by distinguishing himself from the brand of the national Democratic party and convincing a sizable chunk of voters to split their ticket — taking advantage of a region of the state known for its political independence. In 2016 and 2020, the district voted for both Kind and Trump.
But, Chergosky says, that reputation isn’t as strong as it used to be and Van Orden might be able to cruise to victory without earning any swing votes.
“Derrick Van Orden’s calculation is that he doesn’t need to reach out to Democratic voters to win,” Chergosky says. He is betting “he can simply win the voters who back Trump and that it will score him a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless.” That might be a good wager, he adds, given the favorable conditions for Republicans in the midterm elections this year.
Pfaff has countered Van Orden’s strategy by saying his opponent is running a campaign based on the talking points of Republican congressional leaders such as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“He has no plans, he’s not speaking on any issues,” Pfaff says. “I mean, all he’s doing is he’s parroting talking points that he’s getting from Kevin McCarthy and from the [Republican National Committee].”
In addition to his lead in the polls, Van Orden has a sizable advantage in fundraising. He’s been able to raise $4.5 million compared to Pfaff’s $722,000. Part of that advantage was his ability to roll over campaign money from his 2020 race and the fact that he ran unopposed in the Republican primary. Pfaff, meanwhile, didn’t jump into the race until October of 2021 and had to win a crowded primary election.
Van Orden has also seen way more outside money come his way than Pfaff. Data from the Federal Elections Commission shows that outside groups and political action committees (PACs) have spent nearly $750,000 supporting Van Orden and another $25,000 opposing Pfaff. Meanwhile, outside groups have spent $656,000 opposing Van Orden, but only $6,100 supporting Pfaff.
“You’re also seeing that outside money on the Republican side start to come in,” Chergosky says. “I don’t know if the Democratic party’s outside money is going to come in. I haven’t seen a ton of evidence that Democratic PACs, the national party, or even the state party are seriously investing in this race. That might be because they think their financial resources are better spent elsewhere.”
“Brad Pfaff does need a huge investment from the outside groups in the party and the party itself,” he continues. “It hasn’t happened yet but the clock is ticking.”
That lack of financial support, Chergosky says, may make it difficult for Pfaff to get across his message that Van Orden is unfit to represent the district.
“The Pfaff campaign always touts these vulnerabilities Van Orden has — Van Orden was in D.C. on Jan. 6, Van Orden brought a loaded gun to a TSA checkpoint,” Chergosky says. “You talk to the Pfaff campaign and they go on and on, but none of that matters if the voters never find out about these vulnerabilities.”
A recent poll highlighted by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the Madison area’s 2nd Congressional District, shows that even Democrats don’t fully know Van Orden’s background, with just 58% having knowledge of the issues the Pfaff campaign keeps bringing up.
That difficulty getting the message across is made even tougher for the Pfaff campaign because Van Orden has refused to participate in a debate. After the Van Orden campaign refused to join a more traditional debate moderated by a panel of local media and community groups — saying the voters themselves should get to ask questions — the Pfaff campaign countered with a proposal for three town hall-style debates. The Van Orden campaign has so far refused to participate in those as well.
“Brad Pfaff wants three debates and he quite obviously wants these debates because he has a tremendous resource disadvantage and needs to get his message out,” Chergosky says. “Derrick Van Orden … is now declining the very debate format he agreed to in 2020. I get the strategy, you’ve got the lead, what’s in it for the candidate to debate?”
If the decades-long tradition of candidate debates ends this year, voters will have less information than ever. And, Chergosy adds, “it will also be a huge blow to Brad Pfaff.”
Pfaff, who has continued to push for a debate, says he believes the election will be very close but that people see Van Orden is a “phony”
“Now, he cowardly will not debate,” Pfaff says. “And I find that, I mean come on. One thing about people out here, we are hardworking, we’re dedicated, resilient, and God fearing, patriotic people. We can also smell a phony a million miles away. That guy? People see that.”