It perhaps is the most off-the-radar race in the region, lost in the dogfights for U.S. Senate and president and even a state Senate seat.
Election analysts use the terms “safe” and “lock” to describe U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s chances of obtaining a ninth term in the 3rd District, even in these times of deep public dissatisfaction with Congress.
“If you ... need to make (this race) sound interesting, it’s going to be tough,” said John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
It’s not that Republican challenger Ray Boland of Sparta represents some kind of fringe or quixotic candidacy, rising from obscurity and destined to return there should he fall short.
Though he’s never before run for public office, the retired U.S. Army colonel brings a stellar resume: former garrison commander at Fort McCoy, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs from 1992 to 2003.
And while he espouses much of the standard Republican platform — balance the federal budget, no tax increases, repeal the Affordable Care Act, reform entitlement programs, stop illegal immigration — Boland can detail how he would accomplish those goals in ways that show obvious thought and study.
He would, like Kind, close loopholes in the tax code to boost revenue. He likes the “fair tax” plan — essentially a national sales tax replacing the income tax — but thinks a flat tax would be easier to install short-term.
He sees “some good ingredients to Obamacare,” even while campaigning against it. He wants to seal the U.S. borders to Mexico but notes the state dairy industry’s reliance on such workers means “there’s room for common sense on both sides of the issue.”
Boland comes across as knowledgeable, a military man comfortable with taking the lead yet familiar with the concept of compromise, said Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
It could be argued that in some respects he should be a stronger candidate than former state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who two years ago finished only 3 percentage points behind the incumbent. It was the closest the La Crosse Democrat had come to defeat since first winning the seat in 1996 as an assistant district attorney.
“The one difference is Ray Boland is not a politician,” Heim said. “... Without the political skills, Ray is perhaps at a disadvantage.”
The role of redistricting
Boland, too, is fighting not just against Kind but against the once-a-decade restricting that makes his longshot candidacy even more of an uphill battle.
The redistricting, done after every new census and redrawn by whichever party is in power at the time, converted the 3rd District from essentially western Wisconsin to a Y-shaped configuration with an arm that stretches into the central part of the state.
The unstated but understood goal was to shore up freshman GOP Congressman Sean Duffy’s hold on the northern 7th District by making it more rural and cutting out more Democrat-friendly cities such as Stevens Point and Chippewa Falls. That Kind would gain a stronger Democratic base as well was seen as an acceptable trade-off.
Kind insists he’s not taking the race for granted, traveling throughout the revamped 3rd District to make sure he meets his newest constituents. “I think they expect nothing less,” he said.
Other than the occasional television ad showing him and his wife, Tawni, with their two sons suitably garbed in Packers shirts, however, Kind hasn’t had to expend much media effort in the race. And but for yard signs, Boland so far has produced little campaign materials.
Perhaps the state GOP judged that race two years ago, when Kind survived while other Democrats fell across Wisconsin, to be their best shot at ousting the House veteran, Heim said.
Whatever the reason, the party has stayed on the sidelines this go-around, as have the outside interest groups that stuffed the region’s mailboxes with fliers and postcards in 2010.
A state GOP spokesman in an email said the party remains “committed to helping all Republican candidates” through a “legion of grassroots activists.”
But it has provided only $2,500 to Boland’s campaign so far.
Kind has raised nearly $24 for every $1 collected by Republican Ray Boland, according to reports filed last week with the Federal Election Commission. And despite spending more than $1.4 million this cycle, Kind had more than $575,000 in the bank as of Oct. 17, according to his report.
Boland, who has spent about $91,000, has just more than $17,000 left.
“The Republican simply isn’t raising enough money to compete,” Marquette’s McAdams noted.
Boland knows the 3rd Congressional race isn’t “a priority” for the GOP, but he soldiers on.
A native of Chicago whose family moved to Adams County just after he graduated from high school, Boland was a Wisconsin National Guard member and schoolteacher when called up for active duty in 1961. That led to a 30-year military career that included two tours in Vietnam with fixed-wing and helicopter units, numerous postings in the U.S. and abroad, capped by the Fort McCoy command from 1988 to 1991, during the Persian Gulf War mobilizations.
Though retired, he has kept a close eye on Fort McCoy, which while not in danger of closing saw its role as a mobilization training facility end in 2011 despite its ideal Midwest location, facilities and proximity both to Volk Field and rail lines. Area lawmakers should fight harder to keep the fort from being passed over for installations in other states, Boland said, adding those decisions are “all politically driven.”
He admires U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, now the GOP candidate for vice president, for being willing to put a budget plan out there for discussion, even if it left him vulnerable to attack. “I say, folks, if we’re going to do anything about this, we need to talk about it,” Boland said.
His decades in the military and 11 years as state veterans secretary taught him both how to take the lead and how to negotiate to see the objective through, Boland said.
It’s a leadership quality he claims Kind has lacked, a criticism even some neutral observers have raised about the congressman’s 16 years in Washington.
Kind brushes off that portrayal as an opponent’s need to create a perceived weakness. He points to his continuing push for reforms on farm subsidies, health care and defense spending, despite heavy lobbying pressure. He long had decried the regional disparities in reimbursement for Medicare treatment and held up Gundersen Lutheran and Mayo as national models of how quality rather than quantity of care should be rewarded and encouraged.
And he staked himself to the president’s Affordable Care Act when it could have cost him his seat.
“I felt the status quo was unsustainable,” Kind said of his support for the act. “Not that it was a perfect bill, but it was a start.”
Far from being neglected, Fort McCoy is being modernized to remain viable as a four-season training site, Kind said. The installation this year opened its first permanent barracks building and first new barracks since 1942, an estimated $6.8 million investment.
He’s also worked to preserve and bolster federal programs for higher education and training, research, infrastructure, expanding broadband Internet access and developing renewable energy sources. These “seed corn” programs are essential to maintaining a globally competitive workforce now and into the future, Kind said.
And he was among only two Wisconsin representatives and the only Democrat to back the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan that even Boland said should be pursued further, at least as a “baseline” toward a solution.
Kind supports raising taxes on the wealthiest and said he’s heard from constituents willing to pay more if they see serious signs federal lawmakers are ready to better scrutinize what they spend. “That is where the grand bargain needs to happen,” he said.
The current climate might seem to favor those who take an extreme stance, but Kind said voters tell him they’ve grown weary of partisan posturing and gridlock. He thinks his style of finding “common ground” ultimately will prove more effective.
“I’m not always out there picking a fight,” Kind said, “and I think that’s what our country needs right now.