Just weeks after the controversial decision to hold Wisconsin’s early April elections amid a pandemic, voters in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District are being asked to return to the polls on May 12.
The special election in Wisconsin’s northernmost congressional district will decide who fills the vacancy left by Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, who resigned from his U.S. House seat in September. It pits state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, against Democrat Tricia Zunker, who is Wausau’s School Board president and an associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court. The winner will serve only until January; the seat will be up for grabs again in November.
In pre-election fundraising totals reported Thursday, Tiffany brought in $145,000 during the first three weeks of April, bringing his fundraising total to more than $1.35 million. Over the same period, Zunker raised just shy of $155,000. To date, the tribal judge has raised just over $450,000.
The district, which encompasses much of northwestern Wisconsin, was traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Dave Obey held the seat for 42 years until his retirement a decade ago. He was succeeded by Duffy, who first won the seat in 2010. Since redistricting after the 2010 Census, the district has voted 8 percentage points more Republican than the national average in the last two presidential elections, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election tracker.
With the April 7 election behind them, municipal clerks in the district say they feel more prepared to manage the election during a pandemic.
“This election we were not in panic mode like we were in April,” said Superior city clerk Terri Kalan. “We’re handling things a bit better with what we’ve learned.”
Kalan said the city has continued to encourage voters to cast their ballots early or absentee. One of the biggest problems in the April 7 election was voters not receiving their absentee ballots on time; however, Kalan estimates that won’t be a problem for this month’s vote because so many voters who voted absentee in April had requested a May 12 ballot at the same time.
Already, 3,742 voters have requested an absentee ballot for the May election and 3,714 have returned it. Those figures are almost as high as last month’s election, when 4,280 people had requested a ballot. The figures for May could surpass those for April, although Kalan doesn’t think total turnout will be as high.
Another issue for clerks in the April election was difficulty securing enough polling places and election workers. But both Kalan and Wausau city clerk Leslie Kremer said they aren’t having any problems this time around, and that many poll workers who sat out the April 7 election for fear of contracting the virus are helping out this time after seeing the precautions taken, such as social distancing and protective gear.
A bid at history
Zunker, who said she had considered running for the seat in past elections, said she’s running to fight for affordable, accessible health care, lower prescription drug costs and “making sure that people with pre-existing conditions are covered without penalty.”
Supporting small and mid-size farms and environmental protections are other issues high on the school board president’s to-do list.
“We have some of the most beautiful lands in Wisconsin here in the 7th Congressional District, and people want to make sure that they stay protected,” she said.
Zunker, who has picked up endorsements from several high-profile Democrats — including U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison; Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts; and Cory Booker, of New Jersey — also said her would-be constituents face issues unique to their primarily rural district.
“We have child care deserts,” she said. “People … have to drive an hour one way just for child care or else make the decision not to work, which isn’t a decision that some people can make.”
Zunker said a lack of reliable broadband access and cell phone service in the district is a “critical concern” that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Broadband access is “essentially a utility at this point,” she said, adding “we see that now more than ever with COVID-19 with students that don’t have access to their classes because they can’t get online.”
If elected, Zunker would make history on several accounts. She would be the first Native American to represent Wisconsin in Congress, which she said would be a “deep honor” and “quite humbling.” Additionally, she would be the first woman to represent the district and would be just the second single parent currently serving in Congress.
If she loses, she said, she is “absolutely running again” in November.
“I’m ready to work hard for the people of Wisconsin in Congress,” Zunker said.
Tiffany, who served one term in the state Assembly and has represented Wisconsin’s 12th state Senate district since 2013, said he’ll “bring a good dose of Wisconsin common sense to Washington, D.C.”
The state senator said he “got a lot of work done in Madison” and that the 7th District needs “somebody that has a strong voice from northern Wisconsin.”
Tiffany said helping Wisconsinites get through the COVID-19 pandemic would be his top priority if elected.
“There’s one issue that is critical for all of us, and that’s getting through the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Working on the coronavirus relief bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law earlier this month has prepared him to work on similar packages in Congress, Tiffany said. He said he would focus on helping small businesses “get to the other side of when we get through this crisis.”
The Northwoods native, who has the endorsement of President Donald Trump, said protecting the state’s agricultural industry is also key.
Like Zunker, Tiffany also identified expanding broadband access as a priority. He said he also wants to improve railroad service and management of national forests in the region after the pandemic subsides.
Also like Zunker, Tiffany said that he will run for the full two-year congressional term in November if he loses this month.
“I’m born and bred here in Wisconsin, and just have deep roots in this state,” Tiffany said. “I will go out and represent the people of the 7th Congressional District as they expect to be.”
Zunker and Tiffany debated virtually Monday night.
State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.