Competitive battle expected for vacant congressional seat, party leaders say

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- With three Republicans having announced a bid for the 7th Congressional District special election race, Democrat chairperson Kim Butler from the district says Democrat candidates are primarily waiting on a new set of dates to be finalized for the election before announcing a run.

“I know that people are concerned that we don’t have a candidate or candidates, and that is simply not true,” Butler told NewsChannel 7. “Candidates are simply waiting for the governor’s declaration or working very hard behind the scenes.”

Shortly after Congressman Sean Duffy stepped down on September 23, Governor Tony Evers set the special election for January 27, with a primary date of December 30. Last week, Evers canceled those dates and announced a Spring election instead with as-yet unspecified dates, citing a conflict of state and federal law.

A 2009 amendment to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act created a mandate for absentee voters to receive ballots 45 days before an election, an amendment that has not yet been reflected in Wisconsin election law. Evers’ dates violated that amendment.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission’ public information officer Reid Magney said the WEC does not make recommendations to the governor’s office, but has provided information regarding possible conflicts in state and federal laws throughout the date-setting process.

“We have discussed logistical and practical issues with holding a special election before the Spring Election cycle, during the cycle (February 18 and April 7), and after the cycle. In short, there were no clear or easy answers,” Magney wrote in an October 2 email to NewsChannel 7.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Evers’ office is considering two different schedules for a Spring election, neither of which would line up with the spring general election date, which produced mixed reactions from chairperson Kim Butler of the 7th Congressional District Democrats.

“I think I was hoping that it would be—the actual election would mesh up with the April election,” Butler explained. “It’s easier to get everybody to vote on one day. On the other hand, having a special election on a different date allows for more statewide and national attention towards our 7th congressional district race, which would be beneficial.”

Butler says she liked the earlier dates because it would replace Congressional representation for the district sooner, rather than leaving the seat empty. Chairperson Kevin Hermening for the Marathon County Republicans, however, said he thought it would be a good thing for communities not to be preparing for an election during the holiday season.

“We were a little frustrated that the dates are being moved--and the other benefit of those earlier dates is that someone could get in office and get a little feel for the job before they had to go right into full campaign mode again,” Butler said.

Any candidate winning the seat in the Spring would have more or less than half a year before needing to compete for the seat a second time in the November general election. The executive director for the nonpartisan Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service, Eric Giordano, says that will put them in the driver’s seat for the fall election,

“They’re going to have been through the war of a campaign, which really is a significant slog for anybody. They’ll have proven themselves, they’ll have won the confidence of the voters, and really within a six-month period you’re in a honeymoon situation,” Giordano said. “This person’s probably going to be able to hold on to that seat, whoever that is, just by virtue of the fact that they won the special election. So it really gives them a huge leg up for the fall election.”

More than that, the timing of the special election will provide a vital window into how Wisconsin will swing in the 2020 presidential election, chairperson Kevin Hermening for the Marathon County Republicans explained.

“If the president is unable to get…the Republican candidate elected, pull him across the finish line or stand beside him as he goes across the finish line—it could be bad news for the president’s chances to take the state of Wisconsin,” Hermening noted, citing the energy of Democrats in the state after ousting Republican governor Scott Walker in 2018.

“It’s going to be seen, I think, on the national stage as being a kind of bellwether for how the president will fare come next November,” Hermening said.

“Democrats out-maneuvered us last year, so they are very energized, they’re very optimistic that they’re gonna be able to take this seat that has been under the Republican control since the year 2011,” he said. President Donald Trump took the 7th Congressional District by 20 percentage points in 2016, and Duffy has won it handily since 2011 when he replaced 41-year veteran of the seat, Democrat Dave Obey, partially thanks to the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census.

While more recognizable Democrat names like Ashland state senator Janet Bewley and state representative Nick Milroy from the 73rd Assembly District have declined runs for the seat, Butler says the party is excited for a candidate with fresh ideas.

“I think that we’re going to have a relatively new candidate,” she said, saying she knew of multiple people who were preparing for a run.

For Republicans, Minocqua state senator Tom Tiffany, Army veteran Jason Church from Hudson and Michael Opela from Edgar have all announced bids for the congressional seat, virtually guaranteeing a Republican primary.

Note: The on-air version of this story in October 7's 6pm newscast included visual graphics listing 2019 spring election dates rather than 2020 spring election dates. That error has been corrected in the video attached to this article.