In a race that mirrors national tensions in the Democratic party, 3rd Congressional District voters will choose next month between a self-described “Berniecrat” outsider and a well-funded moderate incumbent.
Myron Buchholz, a retired high school teacher from Eau Claire, is running as a progressive with a focus on trade. He’s hoping to unseat Ron Kind, a moderate from La Crosse seeking an 11th term in office.
With no Republican or third-party candidate registered for the November general election, the winner of the Aug. 9 Democratic primary will be the only name on the November ballot. The Wisconsin Election Commission has predicted only about 16 percent of eligible voters will take part in the primary, which does not feature any hotly contested statewide races.
It is Kind’s first primary challenge since 2006, when he easily fended off La Crosse’s Chip DeNure. It will be the first uncontested general election for Wisconsin’s Third District in 90 years.
First elected in 1996, Kind is chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and is ranked by the organization govtrack.us as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
Buchholz said he’s tired of hearing catch phrases like “reach across the aisle.”
“I don’t see the Republicans reaching back,” he said. “When have the Republicans slid toward your position on anything that matters? I want to stick our flag in the ground and rally around it.”
Kind said voters don’t want a partisan representative.
“It’s the district I represent,” he said. “This district is not overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican. There are a lot of independents and a lot of people who split tickets … I’m hoping I’m bringing just some commonsense Midwestern Wisconsin values to my work in Washington.”
In the April presidential primary, Sanders carried 61 percent of the Democratic vote in the 3rd Congressional District. The district also went for Republican Donald Trump, though by a much narrower margin. (Sanders won Wisconsin, though Trump lost out to Ted Cruz thanks to strong support for Cruz in the southeastern counties.)
The district is considered solidly Democratic, thanks to 2011 redistricting, but University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said western Wisconsin voters tend to be independent and favor moderate candidates.
Still, Heim said, within the Democratic party, “the liberal wing has always been pretty loud.”
Buchholz said it was Kind’s support of a controversial free trade agreement, which has become one of the central points of the presidential campaign, that ultimately motivated him to run for office.
Kind pushed for legislation giving the president fast-track authority to negotiate a trade agreement known at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he says will be a key to gaining access to foreign markets and ensuring the U.S. has a say in making the rules.
Labor unions and others on the left have long opposed free-trade agreements such as the TPP, which has also become a favorite punching bag for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Even Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton opposes the deal.
Buchholz said trade agreements such as NAFTA have not resulted in prosperity for the average American. Instead, wages have stagnated and more than half of Wisconsin schoolchildren now qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
“The invisible poverty we have going on in this country because of depressed wages and lack of good-paying jobs is directly tied to these trade agreements that have shipped jobs overseas, while our corporations get fantastically wealthy,” he said. “Free trade is really only free for the oligarchs.”
Kind says the 2,000-plus page deal is widely misunderstood and is crucial to establishing rules for trade that is already happening and ensuring U.S. companies have access to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets. For example, the agreement would do away with thousands of import taxes currently applied to products made in Wisconsin.
“It’s become a symbol, I think, of some economic anxiety,” Kind said. “I hope it hasn’t become a symbol of ‘we can’t compete anymore, that we’re not good enough’…. I don’t believe that. I think we can compete if we can level the playing field for our workers, our business, our farmers. You do that through a rules-based trading system, and I’d rather be us at the table establishing those rules rather than have China do it.”
Kind concedes that NAFTA did not hold the country’s North American trading partners to American labor standards, but he said the TPP would correct that.
Buchholz is also critical of Kind’s 2002 vote to send troops to Iraq.
Kind says he thought the threat of force was necessary to get weapons inspection teams into the country but he was wrong to trust President George W. Bush to exhaust all other options before going to war.
“It’s fair game to question my judgment as far as trusting the Bush administration to do what they said they would do,” he said.
Minimum wage, Obamacare, infrastructure
Buchholz advocates raising the minimum wage to $15. Kind supports a more modest increase — around $11 — that would be indexed for future inflation.
Though he says Obamacare was an improvement, Buchholz said he would push for a single-payer system.
“We are already paying more per capita than the rest of the industrialized world,” Buchholz said. “The money is there. It’s already being spent, and we’re leaving so many people behind.”
Kind said the current health care law can be tweaked to lower costs and extend coverage to the estimated 36 million Americans still without coverage.
“Healthcare reform is a work in progress,” he said.
Much of Kind’s energy in the last session was focused on VA reform after media reports in 2015 highlighted problems of over-medication and abuse of power at the Tomah VA Medical Center. The scandal, which sparked congressional hearings and cost several VA officials their jobs, appeared to catch the congressman off guard, despite evidence that whistleblowers had previously contacted his office.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law an opioid abuse bill that included language from Kind’s bill named for Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine vet who died at the Tomah facility in 2014 from a toxic mix of drugs.
Kind has also championed rail safety, a key topic in his district, which is crossed by two major railroads hauling oil trains from North Dakota to East Coast refineries.
He said Congress — and state governments — need to support education, job training and the infrastructure upgrades necessary to fuel the domestic economy.
“We as a nation have to be willing to invest in those areas,” he said. “It’s not getting done.”