ADAMS COUNTY, Wis. — A Democrat from western Wisconsin appears to pose a serious threat to freshman Rep. Derrick Van Orden’s, R-Wis., re-election bid. 

What You Need To Know

  • Within a month of announcing her candidacy, Rebecca Cooke raised more than $200,000 in donations

  • This is Cooke’s second shot at Wisconsin’s third congressional district seat

  • Top 2022 candidates Brad Pfaff and Deb McGrath told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they won’t seek another run

After making an appearance at the Central Wisconsin State Fair in Marshfield, Rebecca Cooke met with the small but active members of the Adams County Democratic Party. It was another stop on her reintroduction tour to voters, as this is her second shot at Wisconsin’s third congressional district seat.

“I’m going to be starting probably a 19-county district tour I imagine in the spring,” said Cooke. “Getting through the summer, I’ve been going to almost every single county fair in the district and getting out to county party meetings.”

Adams County, much like the rest of the district, has trended Conservative for a while. The county helped Republican Van Orden flip the seat in his race against Democrat and now-State Sen. Brad Pfaff in 2022. And although she came in second to Pfaff, Cooke won the majority of the vote in Adams County in the primary election. She also won 10 out of the 19 counties that make up the district.

“Never write any place off,” Cooke said. “Democrats exist in all parts of this district. But I’m not just representing Democrats, I’m representing everyone when I’m elected to Congress.”

Cooke’s doing outreach in country areas that can help her secure the party’s nomination this time around. The Eau Claire native often tells voters she grew up on a family farm and is well versed in the county fair scene.

“We raised registered Holsteins, so I showed cows at the Colfax Fair, Dunn County Fair, the Chippewa Fair, the Eau Claire Fair and down in Milwaukee,” she said. “That was a big part of my summers and it’s also a great way to get young people engaged in the dairy industry and interested in continuing on those farming traditions.”

She said she hopes her rural appeal transcends party lines in the right-leaning congressional district.

“I think having a pragmatic candidate like myself is going to pull people off the sidelines — swing voters and Independent voters — and motivate them to get out and vote, particularly because of my working class background,” Cooke said.

But Republicans are looking to distance Cooke from her rural roots and tie her to the Democrat at the top of the ticket in 2024.

“With shrinking paychecks, rising prices, increased government spending, and burdensome regulations that are hurting farmers and small businesses, the last thing Wisconsin families need is another Biden rubber stamp in Rebecca Cooke,” Rachel Reisner, a spokesperson for WisGOP said in a statement.

Cooke was once a small business owner and nonprofit leader. She was also appointed to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation by Gov. Tony Evers. But rising costs forced Cooke to close her business after her last bid. She now campaigns during the day and waitresses during the evenings.

“Going back to waitressing, I think, has been really humbling and being able to hear from my colleagues [about] a lot of the struggles that they have,” Cooke said. “But I think there’s so much dignity in hospitality work and I feel it helps me feel really connected to my community as well.”

Cooke’s story seems to be resonating with voters. Her campaign announced a huge $200,000 fundraising haul one month after she announced her run in July. Experts said her ability to raise that amount so quickly is both impressive and potentially intimidating to a still-shallow primary field.

"I think Rebecca Cooke has really done a nice job of not only getting into the race at the right time, but building a campaign in these key early stages,” said Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “It’s really hard to get a campaign off the ground and it's really hard to attract the kinds of resources that you need at these early stages.”

Cooke will not have to face her top rivals from the last primary. Pfaff and Deb McGrath, a retired CIA officer, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they won’t seek another run for the seat. But Cooke still has a long way to go before the April primary.

“I'm gonna keep building the grassroots infrastructure that we need to win a district like this, and continue raising the resources that I can to be able to get my message out,” she said.