Yesterday, Ashland County District Attorney and former “Real World” reality TV cast member Sean Duffy, 37, announced his candidacy for Congress in Wisconsin’s 7th U.S. Congressional District; the seat that has been held by House Appropriations Committee Chair Congressman Dave Obey since 1969. A world champion lumberjack, who married a fellow cast member in the 1997 MTV series, the immediate question is whether Duffy’s candidacy has legs. The answer is almost certainly no – but that’s only for the 2010 election and it doesn’t make it a bad political move for Duffy over the longer haul.
Duffy’s candidacy will set up a GOP primary in the 7th in September 2010, assuming Dan Mielke stays in the race. Mielke is a farmer from Rudolph who lost to Obey in 2008 and has been running a perpetual campaign against Obey since the run-up to that election. Nobody’s listening beyond the 30-some percent that will vote against Obey in every election and there is no reason to believe that Mielke, 55, will do any better the next time around – and therein lies the dynamic of this election. With that many years in office and one of the most powerful committee chairmanships in the Congress, Dave Obey runs against Dave Obey, not his GOP opponent.
Is it that long-time incumbents simply can’t be beat? No. Wisconsin Congressman Bob Kastenmeier lost his seat after 15 terms to Republican Scott Klug in the 1990 election in the fairly Democratic district that includes Madison and is now represented by liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin. It was the mid-term election two years into George H. Bush’s only term as President; not a bad environment in which Dems to run and a great district for a Democrat to run in. The most stunning race that fall was probably in neighboring Minnesota, where Democrat Paul Wellstone upset Republican 22-year incumbent Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Another long-time Wisconsin Democratic incumbent, Gaylord Nelson, was knocked out of the U.S. Senate in 1980 by Bob Kasten.
While it might seem like ancient history to some, Dave Obey remembers this stuff vividly and anyone who knows him will tell you that he does not take re-election for granted. Ever. I would be surprised to see any significant resources coming into the 7th Congressional District to challenge Congressman Obey.
The GOP spent big bucks trying to hold the 8th District seat formerly held by Mark Green when it was open in 2006 and failed. That was a much easier race. As Assembly Speaker, Congressional candidate John Gard had plenty of political experience and a high profile position from which to raise money and run.
Dr. Steve Kagan had none of that going for him, but he did have the resources to run a congressional campaign and the geographical advantage of running from the Fox Valley, where more of the district’s population is centered. By contrast, Gard’s Assembly district reached down into northern Brown County, but not as far as the City of Green Bay. George Bush easily won the 8th Congressional District in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote, but it swung to Obama with 53.6 percent of the vote in 2008.
The 7th District would be a far more difficult challenge. As Ashland County District Attorney, Sean Duffy’s constituency is about the size of the villages of Weston and Rothschild combined – so not much. It is also away from the major media markets. The population of the district is around 670,000. John Kerry won with 51 percent of the vote in 2004 in the 7th and Obama polled nearly 56 percent in 2008. Democrats represent large sections of the district in the state legislature and so there is little high profile GOP help evident at this point.
Obey knows his district, so he doesn’t get hung up on issues like gun control that can dog other liberal Democrats with large rural constituencies. Over the years, he’s had the opportunity to assist many communities and leaders throughout the district from his congressional perch. While opponents like to try to hang the “out of touch” label on incumbents, it doesn’t really wash. Obey has plenty of full-time congressional staffers working in the district as well as solid staff in his Washington office and a campaign staff. They’re all business.
As a party still reeling from significant losses in 2006 and 2008, the GOP will need to spend its time and resources defending seats where they have vulnerable incumbents and going for gains in districts that are far more competitive for them than this one. On the other hand, Duffy could position himself as legitimate contender going forward if the seat becomes open. He’ll need to run a good race and come up with at least 40 percent of the ballots to look legitimate – and then hope that the time will come when Dave Obey isn’t opposite him on the ballot. Because that’s the Real World.