Special election for Congress

(First published in the April 30, 2020 issue of City Pages)

On May 12 voters will choose between a school board president and state senator

Although the May 12 special election for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District is not between a challenger and an incumbent, it can almost feel like it.


Tricia Zunker

Zunker and Tiffany both were traveling the northern half of the state on the campaign trail until the coronavirus pandemic hit and the state went into a lockdown in late March. What was a battle of car miles has shifted into one waged over bandwidth.

On that front, it seems Zunker is winning. She has outpaced Tiffany in sheer number of Facebook posts in April, as well as unique types and number of virtual events. Zunker has appeared on podcasts, used Zoom to host digital fundraisers, town halls, and major endorsements. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin appeared via Zoom video to offer her endorsement of Zunker. Dave Obey, the Congressman who held the seat for decades before retiring in 2011, appeared via Zoom video to help with an online fundraiser. Even New Mexico’s U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, one of two Native American women sworn in last term as the first Native American women in Congress, sent in a video endorsement.

Zunker also has the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and has received support from native American tribes from Wisconsin and across the nation, both in terms of endorsements and financial support.

Though Tiffany hasn’t posted as much on social media, that might not matter. (He did receive an endorsement from President Donald Trump via Twitter.) Tiffany has severely outraised Zunker. In the reporting period until March 31, Tiffany raised $1.2 million. In that period Zunker raised only $298,130, and had fewer total donations — 327 to Tiffany’s 709. And many of Tiffany’s donations were much bigger than Zunker’s, which makes sense since Zunker has stated her campaign won’t take corporate PAC money.


Tom Tiffany

Tiffany has the endorsements of the National Rifle Association, the Club for Growth, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. Former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, whose resignation for family reasons last fall prompted this special election, endorsed Tiffany over his Republican primary opponent, Jason Church.

A large number of donations toward both parties are now further obscured by online fundraising platforms — WINRED is the Republican version, and ActBlue for Democrats. Tiffany received $74,920 from WINRED, and Zunker received $23,962 through ActBlue. Tiffany’s biggest donations came from the Club for Growth Political Action Committee, totaling $19,302 through 14 donations. Zunker’s biggest came from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, at $4,568.

There’s an ongoing debate among political nerds about what’s more important: energizing your party’s base or earning crossover votes. Both Tiffany and Zunker say that people in the 7th CD tend to vote for the person more than the party. “I’m hearing from people who typically vote Republican or had voted so in the past few elections, who are picking up signs for me,” Zunker says.

That said, Tiffany is considered a solid conservative in a “safe” Republican district (thanks largely to 2010 redistricting that carved out Dem-leaning areas such as Stevens Point). He supports President Trump and avoids questions that relate to criticisms of Trump. For example, Tiffany did not offer comment when asked about Trump’s suggestion that sunlight and disinfectant might treat COVID-19 patients. Instead, Tiffany is following the GOP’s national election playbook of criticizing and blaming China for issues even beyond the coronavirus.

Tiffany suggested one of his first priorities was to get tough on China, and wean the U.S. off its economic reliance on China. He pointed to intellectual property theft and poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic early on.

Zunker didn’t mention Trump by name much in our interview, but attacked some of his policies, such as his trade war with China. Zunker agrees there is a trade imbalance, but suggests it be handled more carefully because a trade war puts farmers at risk, especially ginseng and dairy farmers — Marathon County is the No. 1 exporter of American ginseng. After announcing her campaign at the Eau Claire Dells last fall, her very next stop was to a ginseng farm in Edgar, where she met with farmers worried about Trump’s trade war.

Both Zunker and Tiffany said their first priority if elected is to focus on keeping Americans healthy and back to work safely following the coronavirus pandemic.

Beyond coronavirus, Zunker says health care is her top priority — solidifying protections for those with pre-existing conditions, taking on big pharma over drug prices, and ensuring affordable health care for all. She also wants to tackle rural internet access. While campaigning on the road she saw many areas of the state that struggle without broadband.

Recently, mining came up as a source of contention. Zunker submitted public comment at a county meeting in Oneida County last week over the first steps in creating a sulfide mine, something she says can cause irreparable harm to the environment.

Tiffany has not only supported legislation to open mining in Wisconsin, but he’s authored them, including the removal of the ban on metallic mining. Tiffany says law allows for maximum local control. But direction to counties was quite clear, as Marathon County Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett pointed out: play ball, or we will remove that local control. An actual ban on mining, based on correspondence received from the state, Corbett said at the time, would be unlikely to survive a legal challenge.

The biggest point of contention between the two is the very thing that changed the nature of the race in the first place: coronavirus, and how it impacted elections.

Zunker says that last minute court decisions, prompted by Republican lawsuits, to hold the regular spring election on April 7 election in person was a huge mistake, forcing voters to choose between risking their lives or not voting. Tiffany counters that polling places had more protections than many grocery stores (he’s quick to point out that grocery stores have done a good job though).

Whoever wins the May 12 election will have just a brief campaign respite. The seat is up again for the regular fall election in November.