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Fairs and common ground: On the campaign trail in Wisconsin's battleground 3rd Congressional District

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Just a few days remain in the primary race for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, which will narrow down a group of Democrats to move forward in the general election.

The district is seen nationally as one of the key races that will decide which party controls the U.S. House after the midterms, and has been dubbed a battleground race. But how much battling is actually taking place on the campaign trail?

There are currently four Democrats — Wisconsin state Sen. Brad Pfaff of Onalaska, former CIA officer Deb McGrath of Menomonie, Eau Claire small business owner Rebecca Cooke, and La Crosse Common Council member Mark Neumann — and one Republican, Derrick Van Orden of Prairie du Chien, in the race.

The Tribune met up with all of the Democrats on the campaign trail in recent weeks to gauge what they’re prioritizing and how they’re engaging with voters.

The Tribune made several attempts in the past seven weeks to schedule an interview with Van Orden, but his campaign did not respond.

Who are they?

The candidates in the race are all relative political newcomers. Most have never ran for office or been elected before, and those that have been elected haven’t been in office for long.

The race has largely stayed away from issues. There is specifically little daylight between Democrats on the issues, and instead, it’s their backgrounds that set them apart.

Both Cooke and Pfaff specifically pride themselves in their rural, farm backgrounds.

Cooke, 34, considers herself a purple, working class candidate. She currently still runs both her shop Red’s Mercantile, and her nonprofit Red Letter Grant, while she’s also campaigning.

Rebecca Cooke

Cooke

She grew up on a dairy farm and in a bipartisan household. She said she appeals to a wide variety of political alignments, saying she has the support of “John McCain-style” Republicans, as well as Democrats.

Cooke said her approach is what sets her apart. She focuses on her values, not necessarily party alignment, and she touts herself as being a good reflection of voters in the district, not part of the “wealthy elite.”

Specifically, when she introduces herself to people on the campaign trail, she doesn’t lead with being a Democrat.

Mark Neumann on the campaign trail

Mark Neumann, right, speaks with a constituent at the La Crosse Interstate Fair on Thursday, July 21. He's among four Democrats vying for Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District.

“I say, ‘Hi, I’m Rebecca Cooke. I grew up on a dairy farm up in Eau Claire, and these are my values and these are the things I believe and why I’m running to represent you,” Cooke said.

Pfaff, 54, was also raised on a farm in the district, and his experience analyzing and being entrenched in agricultural issues has set the tone for his politics.

In the 80s, Pfaff recalls working on his family farm as a high schooler while listening to WCOW and hearing about the farm crisis. He’d ask his dad about the issues, who eventually encouraged Pfaff to get involved.

“It just really impacted me. I got involved in public policy because I wanted a better understanding of what was happening and why people were leaving the family farm,” he said.

Pfaff started working on agriculture policy with former Sen. Herb Kohl and then for his hopeful predecessor, Rep. Ron Kind. He then went on to serve on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was the secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

His work and care for the agriculture community, Pfaff said, is emblematic of his overall platform of wanting communities to thrive and survive.

Sen. Brad Pfaff

Sen. Brad Pfaff

“That’s what’s really driven me my entire political career,” he said, “is that I wanted to make sure that we provide the tools for people to succeed.”

Neumann, 68, said his politics are less shaped by his environment and more rooted in his innate identity. He said he’s always had a progressive voice, and has always prioritized fairness, even as a kid.

A former pediatrician, Neumann grew up in Quincy, Illinois and has one brother who is a Republican and the other who is a Libertarian, which he said shows that his politics are part of him.

This is his second run for Congress, and before launching his latest campaign, Neumann said he explored working for one of the other candidates. But none were able to prioritize a major issue for him: Medicare for all.

He wouldn’t call himself a single-issue candidate, though, and instead said it’s an issue that serves as a symbol for the larger issues the country is facing.

Neumann has been labeled the “non-establishment” or protest candidate in the race, labels he said he welcomes but won’t place on himself. But he prides himself as being outside of the pack, and he said his goal isn’t just to be an alternative voice, but instead to focus on developing an informed electorate.

“I see it as a role of service, and sometimes we say all of our votes should be counted. But I like to say sometimes that I want every vote to count,” he said. “And for our citizens, for our electorate, to be able to have their vote mean something.”

McGrath, 61, draws on her background as a woman and a mom. With her military and government experience she is fiercely focused on protecting Democracy and the country.

She specifically draws on the discrimination she faced as a woman throughout her career, where she served more than 25 years in the Army, State Department and at the CIA.

Behind the scenes

The four Democrats in the 3rd Congressional District race prepare for a debate at UW-La Crosse on July 20.

She said as a woman, people often underestimate her. “But I’m using it as an opportunity,” she said, saying it instead feels energizing.

“When I look at those experiences in my life, I know that I can use those in positive ways for others,” she said. “I can speak for others knowing that experience.”

She also touts her experience working at the federal level, balancing billion-dollar budgets and working in national security.

McGrath is also vying to fill the shoes of her late father, Al Baldus, who is a former Democratic Congressman for the 3rd District who was known for reaching across the aisle and finding common ground.

She said she doesn’t focus her campaign on her father’s legacy, and instead leads with her own record. But the family connection to the seat and her experience, she said, combines into a candidate voters can trust.

She said she offers, “tested, principled leadership that people can depend on and people must be looking for.”

On the trail

As a pivotal race in the upcoming midterms, how the candidates are spending their time campaigning varies. Most of the Democrats are focusing on local communities and local voices, while Van Orden has leaned into the national scope of the race.

The candidates are also challenged with energizing voters in a hyper-divided political atmosphere, and they’re all trying to prove that they have what it takes to find common ground in a battleground district.

But despite the battleground nickname, the local campaign trail showed civility.

At his booth at the La Crosse Interstate Fair in West Salem, Neumann sat relaxed in a lawn chair under a canopy tent with a large “Medicare for all” sign front and center and campaign literature spread out across a table covered by an orange and brown knit blanket.

Deb McGrath mug

McGrath

He’s the only candidate set up at the fair that day, other than the county political parties, and Neumann is dressed in a brimmed sun hat and suspenders that look like yellow rulers — a gift from his son that Neumann said has turned into an icebreaker when talking to voters.

In about two hours, a handful of people stop by his table to chat. A man from Appleton talks about his grandkids who are showing animals at the fair. A representative with the La Crosse County Republican Party takes a break from his booth to hear Neumann’s perspective on COVID and marijuana legalization. Another man, this time a Democrat dressed in a John Deere hat and work boots, gets a crash course on the election and asks Neumann about Ukraine and the Biden administration. He said he’ll likely vote for Neumann but wants to look at the other candidates, too.

Neumann said he thinks finding compromise is more useful than common ground.

“You can’t make people into something they’re not,” he said. “We don’t have common ground. We have these different grounds that we work from. And what we can do is compromise.

Neumann said he truly enjoys campaigning and finds it fun. He spends a lot of time knocking doors, saying the best position for a candidate is “on that front step.”

A couple days later, McGrath and her campaign watch from inside Salt & Tipple in downtown Viroqua as torrential rain pours down outside. McGrath was hosting a meet and greet with voters, who waited until the rain let up before filing into the small restaurant.

For McGrath, this is a family affair, and both her sister and her son, Kevin, are in attendance sporting campaign T-shirts and talking to voters. They all energetically talk about McGrath’s experience.

For the occasion, Salt and Tipple dubbed their old fashioned cocktail in McGrath’s honor, titling it “Old Fashioned Values.”

McGrath said she tries to meet voters where they are, and she attends a lot of events, from Juneteenth celebrations to Pride events, to parades and fairs.

Wearing a pair of dragonfly earrings, McGrath said watching the Jan. 6 insurrection unfold is what sparked her to run for office.

Mark Neumann

Mark Neumann

“I never would have, but Jan. 6 was really a life changer for me,” she said just as the lights above her table flicker from the storm, a well-placed special effect.

She prioritizes this message on the campaign trail, often telling people how critical the race is while keeping a steady tone. She said she is feeling a lot of energy on the trail and that people find hope in her campaign.

Still in his suit and tie, Pfaff is seated on a bench on the UW-La Crosse campus after just finishing a Democratic debate. As he talks, he waves and greets people that pass by and filter out of the building.

Pfaff said his job as a state senator is always “front and center,” and a lot of his movement is within his 32nd Senate district, though he has made it a point to travel to all 19 counties in the 3rd Congressional District.

His campaign calendar features parades and local events, and he said he focuses a lot on meeting with community and business leaders. He tries to be accessible, and said his campaign has been and always will be run by people in the district.

Pfaff said he’s already well-known in the district from his decades of work in policy and government, and he said he’s familiar with the process of campaigning.

“It’s like eating an apple, it’s one bite at a time,” he said.

On top of his name recognition, Pfaff is also running on the endorsement from outgoing Rep. Ron Kind. Pfaff describes Kind as a mentor and a friend, saying that they have grown together.

But the two don’t always agree, Pfaff said. He specifically said they bring different backgrounds to the table, and have different priorities when it comes to manufacturing, trade policy and the workforce.

He said he wants to model Kind’s leadership and ability to work with colleagues across the aisle, but also wants to forge his own path.

“I recognize the fact that I have to be able to continue to take the tools, or take what I’ve learned from him, but move forward today,” Pfaff said.

Over the smell of popcorn and the sounds of a beginning dinner rush, a little over a dozen people gathered in a corner at the Bodega Brew Pub in downtown La Crosse to meet and mingle with Cooke.

Cooke prioritized a 19-county tour of the district earlier this year and said she spends a lot of time in her car — that doesn’t have a working A/C — traveling the area. She focuses on events like meet and greets and dairy breakfasts. She enjoys talking and learning from voters in the district, something she calls “getting smart” from the people living with the issues.

Deb McGrath meeting with voters

At Viroqua's Salt & Tipple, Deb McGrath, center in blue, chats with voters at a meet-and-greet on Jul 23. McGrath is one of four Democrats in the running for Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District.

The youngest candidate in the race, Cooke often takes her campaigning to social media, too. She often features videos or photos of herself on the campaign trail, and the volunteers that support her.

She has traveled to what she calls the “deep red” parts of the district, and says she is the non-establishment candidate that is focused on threading the needle between all voters.

“I think it’s important that we’re electing leaders that are going to be unifiers then, and also leaders that are going to be able to heal” places in the district that have felt unheard, Cooke said.

GOP rival strategy

Van Orden has similarly been entrenched in the local communities of the district. According to his social media, Van Orden is often walking in parades and meeting with constituents at gas stations or at community events and businesses.

Derrick Van Orden, Wisconsin

“This is a national disgrace that did not need to happen. It is yet another example of President Biden bungling President Trump’s policy strategy to appease the radical left, putting Afghan and American lives at risk in the process and emboldening the Taliban.”

Derrick Van Orden, R-Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, who running unopposed for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional district. A former Navy SEAL, he served two six-month tours in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2009.

This is Van Orden’s second time running for Congress, and his platform this time around has been focused on inflation, often posting pictures of gas prices or grocery shelves throughout the district.

But Van Orden has also brought his campaign to the national level.

Rather than talking about his Democratic opponents, Van Orden frequently focuses on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or President Joe Biden. He also engages with statewide political players like the Democratic Party of Wisconsin or Democrats from other districts.

Van Orden also appears often on Fox News or Breitbart, but doesn’t engage much with local media, and he’s very active on his own social media. He frequently engages and responds to both supporters and those in opposition online.

Van Orden also has the endorsement from former President Donald Trump and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recently visited a farm in the district with Van Orden.

The primary will be held on Aug. 9. Polls open at 7 a.m.


For information on voting, visit MyVote.wi.gov.

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