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Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District

Battleground race for Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District begins to heat up

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With still more than a year until voters head to the polls, the race for one of the most-watched congressional races in the upcoming midterms is beginning to heat up.

Wisconsin state Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, announced Monday that he is running, joining Derrick Van Orden, R-Prairie du Chien, and one other Democrat in the race.

The candidates are now battling for a seat that was left wide open after longtime incumbent Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, announced he was not seeking another term.

Van Orden narrowly lost to Kind in 2020, one of Kind’s toughest opponents since he took office in the 90s, and a rematch between the two was flagged early by the Republican Party as instrumental to flipping the House.

Derrick Van Orden

Derrick Van Orden

“Whoever is nominated to run as the Democrat in this race would undoubtedly be just another Pelosi-Approved rubber stamp for her radical agenda,” Van Orden said in a statement Monday morning after Pfaff announced his run.

Pfaff has been in politics for decades, largely on the staff side, and last year narrowly beat a longtime Republican for Senate. But he finds himself up against a Republican of a new era in Van Orden, a loyal Trump ally who has fully embraced the former president’s style of politics.

In the early hours of Pfaff’s campaign, the candidate has juggled messaging that he is both willing to work across the aisle while also being critical of Van Orden.

Pfaff has specifically already put Van Orden’s presence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 at the forefront of his messaging.

“We used our pitchforks for lifting hay, not for storming Congress,” Pfaff said in a video released Monday morning.

“If you want a representative who will go burn Washington to the ground, there’s a guy for you,” he said while the video displayed a photo of Van Orden in D.C. on Jan. 6, which was obtained and used by the Daily Beast in an article that investigated whether the candidate was on Capitol grounds during the insurrection. Van Orden has said the report is inaccurate.

Pfaff told the Tribune in an exclusive interview that he “strongly” believes that Washington needs to be “cleaned up,” and did not think Van Orden held the “values” needed in a representative.

“In order for democracy to work we need to make sure that we listen and we respect one another,” Pfaff said. “You don’t go to Prairie du Chien and march into a library and start talking to a teenage librarian aid in a manner that’s not respectful. You do not participate in social media in manners that have been taking place. And of course, we all are aware of what happened on Jan. 6. And that’s not the western Wisconsin way.”

Van Orden ran a fiery campaign against Kind in 2020, and has made headlines since he jumped into the political ring.

A former Navy SEAL, Van Orden has raked in endorsements from top Republican leadership including former President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He is a frequent guest on Fox News and had a brief stint as an actor.

Brad Pfaff

Pfaff

He has come under fire in recent months for different incidents, including his visit to D.C. on Jan. 6. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has since filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, calling for an investigation into whether he used leftover campaign money to fund the trip.

On top of big endorsements, Van Orden is a well-funded candidate. After a record amount of cash raised between candidates in the 2020 race for the seat, Van Orden’s campaign announced on Monday that he raised more than $1 million in Quarter 3 ahead of the filing date of Oct. 15, on top of the $753,996 raised in the previous quarter.

“Every day I meet with Wisconsinites who are tired of Washington politicians putting themselves above the people they represent. I can’t thank the people of the 3rd District enough for putting their faith in me to represent them and continue to drive this movement forward,” Van Orden said.

Brett Knudsen has also thrown his Democratic hat into the race. The Holmen native told the Tribune he served in the Navy for four years and attended classes at Western Technical College. He currently works at a Kwik Trip warehouse and described himself as a longtime member of the blue collar workforce.

“I openly welcome more Democratic candidates to the table. It’s imperative that we have each voice listened to and represented,” Knudsen said in a statement to the Tribune after Pfaff’s announcement.

“With such a fringe candidate coming from the Republican Party, we must ensure that we do not create anymore divide. To do so, we must create as much dialogue as possible to ensure everyone has a fair chance to know their candidates and to seek fair representation,” he said.

Madison and D.C.

Pfaff is jumping into the race after exactly eight months on the job as state senator. He told the Tribune his work so far in Madison demonstrates his willingness to work across the aisle.

When asked if he thinks running for higher office so soon after assuming his Senate seat would hurt him with voters, Pfaff said his dedication to his job as senator will not end.

“I have nothing but respect to the voters, and I listen to the voters every single day. And I do my very best to be everywhere in this state Senate district that I represent,” Pfaff said. He said he wanted the voters to know that he “will continue to advocate and work for their issues, their interests in the Wisconsin state Legislature.

Brett Knudsen

“I work hard and I will continue to work hard. And I will make sure that our small businesses, our family farmers, our rural residents, our residents in the city of La Crosse and elsewhere know that they’ve got a forceful and strong and passionate advocate for their interests,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Pfaff’s term as state senator for Wisconsin’s 32nd District ends in 2025.

Whoever voters choose to represent the district next November will enter into a very divided field of D.C. politics, especially for a Democrat, where moderates and liberals have been colliding.

Pfaff — who has often fallen in line with Kind’s more moderate ideals — would not comment on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations and stalemates over the infrastructure bill, but said he’s heard from Wisconsin residents that it includes pieces that are important to them.

“I think the conversation that’s taking place in Washington D.C., it’s very important for how we continue to move forward as a country,” he said. “But as far as the back and forth negotiation between the House and the Senate, as someone who’s not there I cannot speak to the specifics, but can tell you the underlying topics that are being discussed are very, very important.”

Uncertain maps

This contentious race is taking shape as Wisconsin prepares to redraw its electoral maps, and some options could shake up the district.

One draft of newly drawn congressional districts shifts Crawford County, where Van Orden currently lives in Prairie du Chien, out of the district. If an election was held today with that map, Van Orden would be running against incumbent Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, for the 1st District.

Van Orden previously lived in Hager City in Pierce County, but has since moved to the Crawford County seat.

The two other congressional drafts keep Crawford County with the 3rd District, and as Republicans have issued early complaints about the redistricting process, it’s unclear how far a map that would change the district so much would make it.

The general election for the 3rd District will be on the ballot Nov. 8, 2022. If necessary, a spring primary date is still to be determined.

"Whoever is nominated to run as the Democrat in this race would undoubtedly be just another Pelosi-Approved rubber stamp for her radical agenda."

Derrick Van Orden, GOP candidate for congress on Pfaff announcement

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"If you want a representative who will go burn Washington to the ground, there's a guy for you."

Brad Pfaff, Democrat, on his opponent

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