Brad Pfaff

Brad Pfaff talks with a farmer from the 3rd Congressional District.

BLUE RIVER, Wis. — My ancestors settled in rural southwestern Wisconsin in the 1820s, and this is the place where I learned about politics. My great-grandfather ran progressive campaigns in Grant County with his friend John Blaine, a Lincoln Republican who served a century ago as one of Wisconsin's most visionary governors.

When I was born, the congressman from the district was Gardner Withrow, a labor activist from La Crosse who was elected several times on the ballot line of Wisconsin's independent Progressive Party. He finished his career as a liberal Republican who voted for civil rights, strong unions and rural policies that helped family farmers stand up to corporate agribusiness.

The lines of Withrow's old 3rd Congressional District have changed somewhat over the years, but the values that historically underpinned its politics have remained oddly consistent. As the Republican Party abandoned the progressive stances associated with Blaine and Withrow and veered further to the right, the district began to vote for Democrats. It backed Michael Dukakis for president in 1988 and every Democratic presidential nominee until 2016 — when Republican Donald Trump narrowly won the region and the state. Democrat Joe Biden upped Democratic numbers somewhat in 2020, and the district still sends a number of Democrats to the Wisconsin Legislature.

It started electing Democrats to Congress decades ago, and has done so consistently since 1996 — electing and reelecting Ron Kind, a quiet member of the House Ways and Means Committee who decided against seeking reelection in 2022.

In a year when Democrats were looking at a tough map of contests, the 3rd shaped up as something of a bright spot. The 2022 Republican nominee was a noisy right-winger named Derrick Van Orden, who won 48% of the vote in 2020. But redistricting kept the 3rd competitive. And Democrats had a solid candidate in state Sen. Brad Pfaff, a western Wisconsin native with a track record of leadership on farm issues.

The race should have been a no-brainer for D.C. Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the strategists and consultants and donors simply needed to recognize that keeping the 3rd was mission critical in a tough midterm election year. And that it was a winnable contest.

Unfortunately, the D.C. Democrats are, in fact, no-brainers when it comes to rural, small-town and small-city districts like the 3rd. The party that in recent years has lost one rural enclave after another in the Upper Midwest — northern Michigan's "Upper Peninsula" 1st District, northern Wisconsin's 7th District and North Dakota and South Dakota's at-large districts in 2010, northern Minnesota's 8th District in 2018, western Minnesota's 7th District as well as eastern Iowa's 1st and 2nd Districts in 2020 — missed an incredible opportunity in western Wisconsin this year.

In early October, Axios reported: "Wisconsin Democrat Brad Pfaff, running to succeed retiring Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), isn't getting any outside backup in his race against Republican Derrick Van Orden. House Majority PAC reserved time in the district later this month, but a source familiar with the group's plans said it intends to cancel those reservations."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that "the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not invest any money in Pfaff, and Pfaff was not on the committee's 'Red to Blue' list, which puts a focus, along with extra resources, on the party's key races."

The 3rd wasn't the only district where the D.C. Democrats abandoned their candidate. Winnable contests in Orgon and Texas experienced similar neglect. But the 3rd District race in Wisconsin provides a stark example of the party's penchant for kicking its rural candidates to the curb. And, as the battle for control of the House comes down to a few seats, we're reminded that one of the biggest challenges Democrats face is their own myopia.

Van Orden, a flawed candidate mired in multiple controversies, could have been held to account for his association with Donald Trump's cabal of election deniers, for his harassment of a teenage librarian over a display of books on LGBTQ subjects, and for getting caught with a loaded gun in his carry-on bag as he tried to board a plane. But the Republican's campaign owned the airwaves in October and early November.

Going into the election, a review of financial reports for the race, assembled on the website Open Secrets, found that Van Orden and outside groups supporting his candidacy had a $5 million advantage over the Democrat. Democrats estimated they were outspent four to one.

Pfaff was cut off by his own party's leaders because he was identified as a "weak" candidate.

But he wasn't weak.

Despite the fact that Van Orden massively outspent him going into Election Day, Pfaff came within a whisker of winning. He gained more than 48% of the vote. That's a higher percentage than House candidates, like ousted Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, who were prioritized as top picks by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's House Majority PAC and other Democratic groups. Pfaff won the district's three largest counties (Eau Claire, La Crosse and Portage) and he kept the Democratic percentages in the rural counties in the high 40s. That shows that in counties that Pfaff targeted with his message of strong support for family farmers, the party remains competitive 

"There is simply no spinning this: Derrick Van Orden is underperforming expectations in (the 3rd)," Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse wrote on election night. "And plenty of Democrats are going to be furious at the party organizations and affiliated PACs for not giving Brad Pfaff some help in this one."

That help would have made all the difference.

But it never arrived. And Brad Pfaff, who turned out to be one of the strongest candidates the Democrats had in a competitive open-seat race, was left to explain a few days after the election, "I firmly believe if there would have been greater resources that would have been provided, we would've won this race."

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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