A closely watched congressional race in the western Wisconsin district included Trump-backed GOP candidate Derrick Van Orden who defeat Democrat Brad Pfaff to replace longtime Rep. Ron Kind, flipping the seat to Republicans for the first time in a quarter century.
Retiring Democrat Rep. Ron Kind held the seat for nearly 25 years. But analysts predicted the seat would flip because it has increasingly shifted more to the right.
The western Wisconsin district, which include La Crosse, Eau Claire and Stevens Point, are made up of many of the rural white voters who have migrated to the Republican Party.
Voters there also twice voted for Donald Trump. The Cook Political Report ranked it "Likely Republican" in its House race analysis.
While Van Orden, a former NAVY seal who attended the January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally outside Congress, did beat Democratic state senator Pfaff, it was by a narrow margin of around 12,000 votes.
Helen Kalla, the spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Spectrum News that “Democrats defied the odds in Wisconsin’s 3rd District despite pollsters’ predictions, it would be a Republican blowout.”
"We were proud to support Brad Pfaff, whose strong message against extremism closed the gap in this very competitive district,” Kalla added.
Pfaff said he always knew it would be close.
“There's a lot of Democrats here in rural western and central Wisconsin,” Pfaff told Spectrum News.
What wasn’t close was the amount of money fueling the campaigns. Van Orden significantly out-raised Pfaff by millions of dollars and according to FEC filings, the National Republican Congressional Campaign (NRCC) outspent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on the race as well. The NRCC spent more than $365,000 on Van Orden while the DCCC put $75,000 into Pfaff’s campaign.
"With a little bit greater investment from national Democrats, we would have held this seat," Pfaff told Spectrum News. “I wish [conversations with national Democrats] would have been a little bit more expansive. I wish those conversation would have been a more of a give and take.”
Again, rural voters make up a significant portion Wisconsin’s third congressional district. It’s a voting bloc that Democrats have struggled to reach in state, local, and federal elections. While President Joe Biden’s campaign gained support among suburban voters during the 2020 election, support for former President Donald Trump grew among rural voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I know this district and I fit this district well,” Pfaff said. “And for all of those national Democrats that have been fretting for all these years, that as a party, they don't do very well in rural America, well, they had a real opportunity to do well in rural America.”
Outgoing Rep. Kind, said Pfaff was a "good candidate" despite his loss, calling him a local who "knows the challenges" in the district very well.
“This seat is going to very much be competitive in the future if we have the right candidate,” Kind told Spectrum News. “And Brad certainly, in my opinion, would have made a terrific representative.”
Pfaff says he's eyeing a 2024 run but has not decided if it would be for re-election to the state legislature or another run for the House of Representatives.
"But I agree with Congressman Kind," he added. "This seat is very winnable.”