House battle

(First published in the October 25, 2018 issue of City Pages)

A Democrat and a third-party candidate are challenging the so far untouchable Sean Duffy


Sean Duffy

Whatever you might say about Congressman Sean Duffy, one thing is for certain: The Republican is tough to beat.

In each of the three races he has won so far as the incumbent, he beat is Democratic opponent by at least 50,000 votes in the 7th U.S. Congressional District, which comprises roughly the north west third of the state. His closest race was his first in 2010, in which he defeated Julie Lassa by less than 20,000 votes to take the seat left open by the retiring Congressman Dave Obey. Redistricting then created a more GOP-friendly district, and in 2012 Duffy defeated Pat Kreitlow by more than 12 points; beat Kelly Westlund by 20 points in 2014, and defeated Mary Hoeft by 24 points in 2016.

A pair of candidates challenging Duffy in the Nov. 6 election aim to reverse that trend. Margaret Engebretson of Balsam Lake, a former corrections officer and railroad worker who also spent 24 years in the military including the US Navy, defeated Dr. Brian Ewert in the primary to become the Democratic challenger to Duffy. Voters in the August primary chose the more liberal of the two. For example, Engebretson favors of full path to citizenship for immigrants, versus creating a new legal status that was espoused by Ewert.

Also adding his name to the mix is Ken Driessen of Hayward. Driessen is running as a Direct Participatory Democracy candidate, saying that if elected, he will put all votes to his constituency and cast his vote whichever way the people decide. “I will need some geeky people to make it work,” Driessen told WisconsinEye in July. His personal beliefs seem to lean left, based on his WisconsinEye interview and campaign page, but he says it doesn’t matter because people will determine his votes. (Driessen touts the benefits of better home insulation, drives a car that achieves 100 miles per gallon and authored a resolution on his website dated Jan. 3, 2019 to impeach President Trump.)

Though votes for Driessen might be a factor, the real contest is between the two major political party candidates. On one side is Duffy, who rarely strays from the GOP party line, and Engebretson, who veers more toward a Bernie Sanders-like platform.


Margaret Engebretson

Engebretson positions herself almost squarely opposite of Trump. She advocates a Medicare for all system, which she says would be paid for through decreasing medical costs overall with better health care coverage and the government’s ability to negotiate pricing for drugs. She wants real immigration reform, saying that anything less would create a second class of citizen, which historically has worked out poorly in the US —she points to treatment of African Americans and Native Americans as examples of this.

Engebretson says a $15 minimum wage is a “bare minimum,” but says it needs to be phased in. The closest she comes to agreeing with President Trump is on the trade imbalances with other countries. Like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, she says the president was right to point out those imbalances and want to fix them, but says tariffs should be used “like a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”

Duffy, who resides in Wausau, stands behind Trump’s imposition of tariffs, and most of Trump’s policies, even if he disagrees with the tone and language Trump sometimes uses, he said in an interview with WisconsinEye. Those tariffs impact Marathon County —specifically a more than 15% tariff on ginseng products that China imposed in retaliation to Trump’s policies. But Duffy says local ginseng farmers he talked to are behind the president.

Duffy wants to keep the health insurance market privately based and not “decided by Washington bureaucrats a thousand miles away.” Tackling the debt is also listed as a priority on his campaign website. Immigration reform is notably absent.

If their policies are different, so are the amount of money they raised for their campaign. Engebretson has raised just $88,000, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Duffy raised nearly $3.4 million and spent about $2.4 million, according to the most recent filing.