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Clockwise, from top left: Rebecca Cooke of Eau Claire, Brett Knudsen of Holmen, Brad Pfaff of Onalaska, and Deb McGrath of Menomonie are running for the Democratic nomination to replace retiring US Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse). (Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

The retirement of longtime US Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) sets up a tough battle for Democrats to retain his seat.

Rebecca Cooke’s decision to seek election to Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District seat was born of a desire to see a less-political, more grassroots elected official represent the district. 

Brett Knudsen decided to run for the position after countless discussions with people who told him they didn’t believe their views were represented in Congress. 

Deb McGrath said her ability to connect with people of all sorts of political and life backgrounds enables her to represent the varied interests of the residents of the 3rd District, which makes up much of western Wisconsin, from the state’s far southwestern corner up to Eau Claire and east to Stevens Point.

While Brad Pfaff has spent his adult life in politics, it’s his lifelong ties to the 3rd District and its people that prompted him to try for the congressional seat. 

The four Democratic candidates who have announced they are seeking election to western Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District next year have different backgrounds and stances, but they are united behind ensuring the district continues to be represented by a Democrat in a contest expected to be among the most-watched congressional races nationally.

Cooke, 34, a small-business owner in Eau Claire; Knudsen, 24, a Kwik Trip employee who lives in Holmen; McGrath, 60, a former CIA officer, of Menomonie; and Pfaff, 54, a state senator of Onalaska, hope to replace US Rep. Ron Kind, a La Crosse Democrat who is retiring after having held the seat since 1997. Kind has endorsed Pfaff, a state senator who previously was secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) before Republicans refused to confirm him for that position.

The four Democratic candidates will face off in an Aug. 9, 2022, primary. Derrick Van Orden, who has announced he is running for the position, is so far the only Republican to enter the race before the June 1 filing deadline. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Van Orden narrowly lost to Kind in the 2020 election and was investigated for using leftover campaign funds to travel to Washington DC on Jan. 6, 2021 for the pro-Trump protest that turned into the Capitol insurrection. The 2022 election for the 3rd Congressional District is expected to be close once again.

The Democratic candidates criticized Van Orden’s participation in the Capitol insurrection, saying that action and what they called his extreme, far-right views make him unfit to represent the district nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. 

“Someone who went to Washington, DC on that day with the idea of backing the assault on our democracy should not be representing this seat in the US House of Representatives,” Pfaff said. “That is fundamentally wrong.”

Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL and small-time actor, acknowledged attending the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol. He repeatedly has claimed he never entered the Capitol grounds despite social media posts from the riot showing otherwise. 

Van Orden is an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump who has taken an active role in urging parents of school children to oppose wearing face masks in schools. He also complained about a display celebrating Pride month in a  Prairie du Chien library, leaving employees feeling “threatened.” 

“Ending Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s radical one-party rule in Washington starts here in Wisconsin’s 3rd District,” Van Orden said in an Oct. 4 press release announcing his campaign had raised more than $1 million during the third quarter of 2021. “Everyday [sic], I meet with Wisconsinites who are tired of Washington politicians putting themselves above the people they represent.” 

Bridging the Gap

To connect with voters in a purple, largely rural district that has leaned increasingly Republican in recent years, the Democratic candidates said they must discuss issues most directly affecting voters, such as making health care more affordable and accessible, creating more better-paying jobs, expanding high-speed internet access, and adequately funding schools.

The candidates touted their familiarity with the district and its residents as a strength in seeking the 3rd Congressional District seat. Focusing on topics that impact people, regardless of their political affiliation, will be key to effectively messaging to both Democrats and Republican voters, McGrath said, noting her willingness to engage members of both political parties as a strength. 

“I learned that very young, that we are neighbors in Wisconsin, and I don’t believe that has changed,” said McGrath, the daughter of Al Baldus, who represented the 3rd Congressional District from 1975-81 and was the first Democrat to hold that seat in 66 years. “You have to listen to every single person. These are our people. We have to care about everybody.”

RELATED: ‘Run Out of Gas’: Rep. Kind to Retire From Congress

Cooke grew up on a farm west of Eau Claire and operates Red’s Mercantile, a modern home goods and accessories store in Eau Claire. She founded the nonprofit Red Letter Grant, which works with women starting their own businesses and helps fund those efforts. She said her farming background and operating a small business, along with serving as a member of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) board, allows her to relate to the needs of district residents.   

“I have a lot of real, lived experiences to bring to the table,” Cooke said. “I understand a lot of the trials and tribulations of what it’s like to live in a rural community, to work hard and struggle in those communities.” 

During talks with district residents, Knudsen said he’s been struck by conservatives and liberals alike saying they’re impacted by many of the same concerns, such as the need for increased broadband internet service, more higher-wage jobs, better workplace protections, and more affordable health care.

“I believe there are too many people who don’t feel like they are represented by our government, and I believe I have the background to bring up issues for discussion that matter to them,” Knudsen said, referring to himself as both “a vehement socialist” and a “middle-class guy.”

Like Cooke, Pfaff said his farming and rural life background enables him to relate to the needs of 3rd Congressional District residents and work for middle-ground solutions. As he talks with people in their barns, businesses, and homes, Pfaff said, the concerns people express most often transcend political parties. 

“We have to have a willingness to meet people where they’re at, to listen to different viewpoints, and realize that there is not just one right answer,” he said. “In difficult times like this, we have to be able to have difficult discussions, and then work to find ways to come together.”