Pfaff, Van Orden and Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District

A Republican promoting national political issues and a Democrat focusing on local economic desires are vying in a high-profile 2022 contest for a U.S. House seat in rural, western swaths of the state.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

September 9, 2022 • Southwest Region

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A Republican promoting national political issues and a Democrat focusing on local economic desires are vying in a high-profile 2022 contest for a U.S. House seat in rural, western swaths of the state.

The race to represent Wisconsin’s third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives is heating up as Election Day approaches.

Democratic candidate Brad Pfaff is going up against Republican candidate Derrick Van Orden in a competition of two very different campaign strategies.

“It’s hard to imagine two candidates with more different styles. You look at Brad Pfaff, [a] low key guy, really focuses on his family background from rural Wisconsin. Derrick Van Orden comes into the district, and really wants to brand himself as an outsider in politics, Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse said.

“Or Van Orden wants to come in as someone who’s going to fight those battles, who’s going to get in the arena and fight those cultural battles and really show his support for Donald Trump,” he added.

Anthony Chergosky sits in the UW La Crosse Student Center, with a bench and lights in the background.

Anthony Chergosky, a professor of political science at UW-La Crosse, says this race will be a key indicator of which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives after the midterms. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Chergosky said this race is garnering national attention due to the retirement of longtime representative Ron Kind, and the district’s highly competitive nature. Kind was one of the few Democrats elected to Congress in a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2020.

The challenge for both candidates is how to relate to a large, geographically diverse district that includes six University of Wisconsin colleges and a large farming population.

A red tractor on a farm in front of a shed, with a forest in the background.

The unique makeup of the 3rd Congressional District means that any representative has to be able to relate to college students, and life long farmers. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“I would say there are really key and significant rural elements of this district. We know how well Republicans are doing in rural parts of Wisconsin,” Chergosky said. “We know how well they’re doing in rural parts of America. And this is no different.”

So far in the race, Van Orden has chosen to nationalize his politics, often bashing Joe Biden for federal policies on Twitter. He lists COVID-19 restrictions in schools, stopping tax hikes and “leading with integrity” as the top three issues on his website.

Van Orden did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this report.

Derrick Van Orden at a podium that says "Save America", with Trump and Tim Michaels supporters in the background.

Van Orden made an appearance at Augusts Trump rally in Waukesha, where he talked about the importance of turning the 3rd Congressional District red. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

The Republican has found himself in the middle of numerous controversies over the past year, including reports he was at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th during the insurrection, and an incident where he reportedly made library staff in Prairie Du Chien feel “threatened” over an LGBTQ+ pride display.

The Republican spoke at former President Donald Trump’s rally in Waukesha on August 5, a city about 100 miles from the closest point in the 3rd District.

“Hey, I’m Derrick Van Orden. I’m a retired Navy SEAL senior chief, and I’m the nominee for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District,” he said to kick off the speech. “I want to thank President Trump for having me here today and for continuing to fight for America. It is irrefutable that this nation was better under his leadership. It’s not a partisan statement. It’s reality.”

At the rally, Van Orden bashed Joe Biden on rising inflation, fentanyl overdoses, illegal immigration and the removal of troops from Afghanistan.

“The one thing that all these things had in common. None of them. None of them happened under Donald J. Trump,” Van Orden said.

A fact check shows that despite Van Orden’s claim none of those issues were prevalent during Trump’s time in office, fentanyl overdoses have been steadily rising in America since 2014, the number of apprehensions at the border have increased from 458,088 in his last year in office, to 1,946,780 so far this year, and he supported the removal of all troops from Afghanistan.

Van Orden’s competition, Brad Pfaff, who currently serves in the state Senate, has taken a very different approach to his campaign, choosing to focus his attention on local issues.

Brad Pfaff sitting in front of a wooden fence, with a green barn, telephone poll and corn in the background.

Brad Pfaff says that he is the right choice for voters in the 3rd Congressional District, because his entire career has been based around fighting for those citizens. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“The thing is this is that we need to make sure that any type of public policy we put in place understands the people’s needs and what’s happening out here in the countryside,” Pfaff said in an interview with PBS Wisconsin at his family farm.

Pfaff said he can relate to voters in western Wisconsin because he’s lived and served his whole life there. The Democrat was a staffer for more than 12 years with Ron Kind representing the district, before taking positions in President Barack Obama’s, and then Governor Tony Evers’ administrations.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do agriculture policy for U.S. Senator Herb Kohl through agriculture policy and rural policy for Congressman Ron Kind [and] to spend eight years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Obama administration,” Pfaff said. “And it was a dream of a lifetime to be asked by Gov. Evers to serve as our state Secretary of Agriculture.”

A sign that says "Pfaff Family Farm, since 1967, Leon and Ruth" with a Pfaff for Congress sign beside it. A mailbox and house are in the background.

Pfaff’s parents have owned a small family farm since 1967, where Pfaff says his love for agriculture and the beauty of Wisconsin’s 3rd District was born. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Pfaff’s legislative goals include providing tax incentives for manufacturers that move back to America from overseas, investing in affordable education like trade schools and apprenticeship programs, and protecting Wisconsin workers through legislation U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced that aims to restore fair exchange rates for exported products.

“For far too long, this nation has thought that we could import products from other nations in order to take care of our consumer needs. “The thing is, here in Wisconsin, particularly here in western Wisconsin, we know how to build things,” Pfaff said.

“We know how to innovate. We know how to engineer. We have some of the best workers around the world. The thing is, they just need an opportunity in order to apply their trade,” he continued.

Looking up at a brown grain silo with a white top. Ivy is covering the bottom half of the silo, and clouds are in the background.

The 3rd Congressional District has many farmers supplying the country with grain, corn and more. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Pfaff also criticized Van Orden, saying his temperament and attitudes do not match the district.

“Derrick Van Orden, my opponent in this fall election, he is not from here. He does not know the people or the communities of this district. He doesn’t share our values,” Pfaff said. “The thing is, we’re hardworking, God-fearing, patriotic people out here. Derrick Van Orden’s temperament, judgment and character do not reflect the people of this district.”

The big question: Which style of campaign will turn out enough voters to win the election in November, whether that be through nationalized politics, or if the path to victory is through local efforts?

“I think Derrick Van Orden learned that he can really lock down those Republican supporters by emphasizing how much he backs Donald Trump,” Chergosky said. “Brad Pfaff is really, I think, going to try to model his campaign after Ron Kind and try to show ways where he is distinct from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, and Washington Republicans.”

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