Multi-million dollar special election race about to wrap up in 7th Congressional District
The northern, central and western portions of Wisconsin are about to hold their third election of the year, with the vote in the 7th Congressional District special election on May 12 remaining unchanged after a chaotic April election statewide. Republican state senator Tom Tiffany faces off against Democrat candidate and Wausau School Board president Tricia Zunker, in a race where Tiffany has aligned heavily with President Donald Trump while Zunker has struck a moderate tone on the left while facing an uphill battle in a district that’s voted reliably Republican for a decade.
While Tiffany has outraised Zunker by more than double in the race overall at about $1.3 million to her $453,000, Zunker’s fundraising in April surpassed his at $155,000. That’s more than Duffy’s opponent Margaret Engebretson raised during her entire campaign in 2018, where she took just 39% of the vote.
In the April election, many counties in the district showed a declining conservative margin in the state Supreme Court race when compared to 2019’s similar race. In the district’s population centers in St. Croix and Marathon counties, conservative-backed justices won both races in 2019 and 2020 despite a statewide loss in 2020 —but last month the margin had decreased from 10 points to nearly 0 in St. Croix, and declined from 18 points to 6 in Marathon County. The district overall voted for President Trump by 20 percentage points in 2016, but prior to 2010's red wave resulting in the election of Rep. Sean Duffy and redrawn district maps taking effect thereafter, was represented for forty years by longtime Democrat congressman Dave Obey.
Outside interest from political action committees making their own ad buys in the race has been much smaller than during the contested GOP primary that attracted millions, with the Americas PAC—funded almost entirely so far this cycle by U-lines CEO Richard Uihlein, a major Republican donor—spending about $250,000 in ads opposing Zunker.
The winning candidate will only hold the seat for the remainder of Duffy’s term ending in January, and both have begun collecting signatures to secure a place on the fall ballot for a full two-year term. The executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) Eric Giordano says the size of the margin for the winning candidate could determine the level of enthusiasm come November.
“If the Democrats and Tricia Zunker feel like ‘Hey, you know, we were within striking distance…or the opposite, if Tom Tiffany lost and was within striking distance, then there would be incentive for both candidates to run and the parties to back both candidates very strongly.”
“The dynamic in November will be a lot different in terms of the electorate, but there are a lot of important decisions that will be made between now and November,” state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson noted in an interview with NewsChannel 7.
The fact Zunker’s not running against a popular incumbent like Duffy could be a contributing factor in a closer race, Giordano said. “We know that part of the results of any election are based on the intensity of feeling of voters and the intensity of feeling of voters and their willingness to come to the poll.”
In a Friday discussion
and the chairmen of each party in the 7th Congressional District, GOP chairman Jim Miller said that hopes of visits from either President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence hadn’t materialized due to the pandemic, which could impact turnout, but that the heavily contested primary had helped push Tiffany in the public’s eye prior to the shifts on both campaigns to digital platforms during the social distancing era.
“This race I don’t think has gotten a lot of national attention really,” Miller said. “This one’s kind of flown under the radar.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission released numbers of absentee ballots in the race Friday afternoon, indicating about 25% of registered voters so far have requested ballots; about 110,000 have been requested and about 69,000 returned. Turnout statewide in April’s election, between absentee and in-person voting, amounted to about 36%.
“The Democrat Party’s been pushing absentee voting since before the April 7 election; we just think it’s the safest thing for people to do,” 7th Congressional Democrat chair Kim Butler said during the WIPPS broadcast. “Right now we’re pushing getting people to return them.” Zunker has focused heavily on virtual methods of reaching voters, holding several virtual listening sessions for voters in weeks leading up to the election.
In Wausau, city clerk Leslie Kremer, recommends that at this point voters return ballots through the city’s silver drop boxes at city hall and the post office. Ballots can also be brought to polling places on Tuesday.
Unlike the April election where a federal ruling allowed a week's extension for ballots to be received, absentee ballots sent by election day but received afterwards will not count toward the vote, with results to be released in traditional fashion on Tuesday evening.
Both candidates have picked up big name endorsements from party leaders, with the president tweeting out his endorsement for Tiffany 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, former longtime 7th Congressional district congressman Dave Obey, as well as prominent liberal advocacy groups like Emily’s list and American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).