COVID-19, health care in spotlight as 7th Congressional candidates face off in virtual debate

Republican Tom Tiffany and Democrat Tricia Zunker (Source: State of Wisconsin)
Republican Tom Tiffany and Democrat Tricia Zunker (Source: State of Wisconsin)(NBC15)
Published: May. 4, 2020 at 11:06 PM CDT
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In a spirited virtual debate Monday evening, Republican state senator Tom Tiffany faced off with Democrat Wausau school board president Tricia Zunker days before the special election on May 12 to fill former Congressman Sean Duffy’s seat in the 7th Congressional District.

The debate was hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, and can be viewed in full on

COVID-19 and reopening the economy

While both candidates advocated for continued aid and support for small businesses, they differ on when to reopen the economy.

“We need to listen to the medical experts, we need to listen to the scientists, and we need to do what’s safe,” Zunker said. “So if that means that the businesses are delayed in opening so that we can protect the health and safety of all Wisconsinites, that’s the safe and correct way.”

Tiffany, however, called for a regional approach towards reopening of the economy in light of the impact of Memorial Day tourism for rural Wisconsin and the low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, an approach the White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx has supported. New York State’s governor Andrew Cuomo as of Monday had implemented a regional approach to reopening his state, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 does not stop at the county line,” Zunker said, adding that rural health care systems could be overwhelmed if a regional approach was utilized.

Health care

“We absolutely need to expand the Affordable Care Act and make sure that we have affordable, accessible health care,” Zunker said. “We need an affordable robust public option for those that want it, but I did spend immense time meeting with people, and there are people that don’t want to be forced off their insurance.”

“Medicare for all will lead to Medicare for none,” Tiffany said. “There’s a better way to go about that, and that’s to give people more choice and more transparency with their health care.” Tiffany said he also supports direct payer methods for primary care.

Candidates clashed over the question of whether Sen. Tiffany did indeed support coverage for pre-existing conditions, with Zunker maintaining he did not and Tiffany pointing to his record in the state senate.

In the extraordinary legislative session of December 2018, Tiffany along with most Republican senators voted for legislation that would have guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act was struck down; however, that legislation did not include all the protections of the ACA, including measures to prevent premiums for those conditions from increasing. Democrats voted down the measure, criticizing it for removing other protections of the ACA. Additionally, senate Republicans—including Tiffany—also voted during that session to sustain Republican measures to repeal ACA, along with its guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions.


Both candidates said they want to join the House Committee on Agriculture given the number of rural farmers in the district. While Zunker targeted Tiffany for his support of the president’s trade wars and the impact they’ve had on Wisconsin farmers, Tiffany maintained that the long term goal toward fair trade was one of the goals being accomplished by the tariffs.

“We need someone who’s tough enough to take on China, Tiffany noted. “We need to continue to do that with China so they treat us in a fair fashion."

Zunker said her priorities for farmers were the elimination of predatory business practices, furthering access to mental health resources for farmers, and ensuring their access to broadband access.

"My opponent has made it incredibly clear that he is going to be a rubber stamp for anything that President Trump says or does," she said. "And I'm going to be vocal for actually the people here of Wisconsin 7th Congressional District, who have been hurt by Trump's tariffs."

Sexual assault allegations towards Pres. Trump, Biden

Both candidates were asked about allegations of sexual assault against President Donald Trump, as well as the allegation against presumed Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden. In response, Tiffany discussed the women in his family and their roles in his life, saying that women should be treated with respect. Zunker stated women should be heard, but that stories should be weighed based on their credibility, which she said varied in each of the allegations against Trump and Biden.

Universal Background Checks, other issues

On universal background checks for gun purchases, Zunker said she supported the Second Amendment but believed universal background checks should be implemented and did not infringe on the Second Amendment. Tiffany cited his record on helping pass conceal carry and Castle Doctrine in Wisconsin, and said universal background checks were ‘code for confiscation.’ A recent Marquette Law School poll found 80% of Wisconsin supported universal background checks.

Candidates also touched on climate change, mining regulations, health care for undocumented workers, and funding for defense.


Both candidates have picked up big name endorsements from party leaders, with the president tweeting out his endorsement for Tiffany last week in addition to endorsements from former Congressman Duffy and former governor Scott Walker. Zunker has received the endorsements of former presidential candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, as well as prominent liberal advocacy groups.


The election to replace former Congressman Sean Duffy’s remaining seat in the House is May 12; the deadline for registered voters to request absentee ballots is May 7. Both candidates have already begun collecting signatures to be on the ballot in the November general election for a full two-year term in Congress. The winner of the special election on May 12 will finish former Congressman Sean Duffy’s two-year term, ending in January.

Previous coverage of special election:

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