3CD Map Dem Primary Heads
The candidates in the Democratic Party primary hoping to succeed retiring incumbent US Rep. Ron Kind are, clockwise from top left, Deb Baldus McGrath, Mark Neumann, Brad Pfaff, and Rebecca Cooke.

The retiring Democrat was the only one in his party to vote against a bill this week to create an Amber Alert system for active shooters.

As someone who didn’t always vote with the pack, US Rep. Ron Kind is going out as independently as he came in—a trait which provides a backdrop for Wisconsin’s most competitive congressional race this year.

Kind was the only Democrat in the House of Representatives to vote against a bill Wednesday that proposes a public notification system for active shooter situations, similar to an Amber Alert system for missing children. The bill passed, 260-169, with 43 Republicans voting for it alone with every other Democrat except Kind.

Retiring from Congress after 13 terms, the La Crosse Democrat is no stranger to being an outlier in his caucus, and he frequently notes that his electoral success has come from mirroring an independent streak among voters in the 3rd Congressional District. Prior to Kind’s lengthy tenure, the seat was held for 16 years by Republican Steve Gunderson, who also held moderate positions that didn’t sit well with some of his party’s rank and file.

Kind narrowly defeated Republican Derrick Van Orden in 2020, 51%-49%, even as former President Donald Trump carried the 3rd District, as also did in 2016 when Kind benefitted from Republicans failing to put any challenger on the ballot.

With Kind stepping down, four Democrats have put themselves on the Aug. 9 primary ballot, each hoping to face Van Orden—the presumptive GOP nominee—this fall. Whichever candidate becomes the nominee will likely put immense focus on Van Orden’s presence on the US Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021—when a mob attacked the Capitol as part of a plot by former President Donald Trump to delay the counting of electoral votes or steal the election with fraudulent electoral ballots that overturned the will of voters in Wisconsin and other states.

Van Orden—who used campaign funds for the trip—claims to have left the Capitol area before the deadly violence began.

The four Democratic candidates include a former CIA officer, a small-business owner, a physician, and a current state senator who previously worked for Kind.

Deb Baldus McGrath

Former CIA officer Deb Baldus McGrath of Menomonie made news this week for publicly criticizing Kind’s vote against the Active Shooter Alert Act and promised to push for better background checks and banning ghost guns that are nearly impossible to trace.

“I served 25 years in the Army and CIA in our toughest war zones and hardship places,” McGarth said in a statement. “I know the chaos and destruction a weapon in the hands of an active shooter brings, and the importance of clear communication systems to alert people of risk. This legislation could save lives.”

In an interview with UpNorthNews, McGrath, the daughter of former congressman Al Baldus who served the district prior to Gunderson, said she would also want to work immediately on supply chain issues, inflation, lowering drug prices, and building out Wisconsin infrastructure.

“Those are the things that are really affecting people right now,” said McGrath. 

She also noted that her decision to run was cemented by the Jan. 6 participation of Van Orden, a retired Navy Seal “who took the same oath that I did to protect and defend the Constitution” yet went to Washington, DC to support a defeated president trying to overturn an election.

Mark Neumann

Physician and La Crosse City Council member Mark Neumann challenged Kind in the 2020 Democratic primary, gaining support from liberals in the district who felt Kind did not fully embrace Medicare for All or a single payer healthcare system. Neumann got 19% of the vote to Kind’s 81%. 

Neumann is again asking voters to make Medicare for All a priority as they choose their next representative.

“Even though we pay twice as much as other countries per person for delivering our health care services to the citizens of America,” Neumann said, “our outcomes are worse than other countries. And it’s inefficient because of this large expenditure [that is] going into profiteering instead of going into benefits.”

“We’ve had such a hard experience with this pandemic that it has helped us in some level, all of us, to realize that health care is not an individual endeavor, but it’s a community endeavor—that for human beings to be healthy as individuals, we have to live in a community that is also healthy,” Neumann told UpNorthNews.

Rebecca Cooke

Rebecca Cooke grew up on a dairy farm near Eau Claire, operates a small business, and serves on the Wisconsin Economic Development Council after being appointed by Gov. Tony Evers.

On her campaign website, where her priority issues include the economy, health care, farming, and rebuilding the power of workers, Cooke says bluntly: “I won’t solve all our problems overnight, but I’ll sure as hell try. We might not see eye to eye on everything, but I’m going to fight for this region’s future.”

In an interview with UpNorthNews, Cooke said her roots and her experiences make her a good fit for the 3rd District.

“I think that they’re looking for someone that represents them, somebody that has stepped off the sidelines,” Cooke said. “I’m the only working class person running in this race. I grew up working class and still running a small business, still running a nonprofit, and a 19-county congressional campaign at the same time. And I think people are looking for someone that’s walked a mile in their shoes.”

“As a small business owner, I rely on the [Affordable Care Act] exchange for my health care. I’m somebody where the inflation has really affected my life in the way I run my business. And so making the kind of policy that I think impacts everyday people is really important to me to be that kind of fighter in D.C.”

Brad Pfaff

While every candidate tries to stand out with a list of endorsements, Brad Pfaff has the most noteworthy name endorsers in the primary: Ron Kind, his former boss. 

Pfaff grew up on a dairy farm (”a proud son of the rolling hills, coulees, and valleys of northern La Crosse County”), met his future wife at a 4-H event in high school, and points to his resume as showing a career-long connection with a region that has long been recognized as one of the predominant dairy farm districts in Congress.

“People here in western and central Wisconsin, they know me,” Pfaff told UpNorthNews. “They know I’ve had the opportunity to work on their behalf. First with US Sen. Herb Kohl, then with Congressman Ron Kind. I had the opportunity to spend eight years at the US Department of Agriculture, and I had the opportunity to lead the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, Consumer Protection (DATCP).”

“They know that I’ve always put their interests first. They know that I understand their communities. I understand the rural way of life. They know that I will continue to always put their interests first,” he said.

Pfaff’s time as secretary-designate of DATCP lasted less than a year as he became a pawn in a power play involving legislative Republicans who slow-walked or, in many cases, continue to stall confirmation votes for some of Gov. Evers’ appointments—three-and-a-half years into his first term. It was only when Pfaff criticized Republican lawmakers for not doing enough to help support mental health programs for Wisconsin farmers that state Senate leadership held the vote and rejected his confirmation, effectively firing a governor’s cabinet member out of spite rather than for cause.

About a year later, Pfaff became a state senator himself by winning the 2020 election in the 32nd District after incumbent Democrat Jen Shilling resigned.

The 3rd Congressional District stretches from Pierce, Dunn, and southern Chippewa counties down to Grant County in the southwest corner of the state. It also has an extension into central Wisconsin’s Wood, Portage, and Juneau counties as a result of the 2011 Republican gerrymander that kept the district narrowly Democratic-leaning while making northern Wisconsin’s 7th District more Republican following four decades of representation by Democrat Dave Obey.