The race for Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District again attracts national attention

Rebecca Cooke, Katrina Shankland and Eric Wilson are running in the Democratic primary to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden in the 2024 fall general election.

By Nathan Denzin

June 25, 2024 • West Central Region

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An aerial photo shows a grid of streets, buildings, parking lots and trees extending toward a series of bluffs on the horizon, under a cloudy sky.

Central Prairie du Chien is seen from overhead on April 25, 2023. The city is home to U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who is running for re-election to Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District in 2024 and will be facing the winner of the Democratic primary in August. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Three Democrats are duking it out in the 2024 primary race for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, where the winner will face off against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden.

These candidates are Eau Claire small business owner Rebecca Cooke, state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point and Eau Claire mortgage loan officer Eric Wilson. All three are vying for a spot on the November general election ballot, with a primary scheduled for mid-August.

The state’s 3rd Congressional District covers much of western Wisconsin, including the Driftless Area along the Mississippi River, and encompasses Menomonee, Eau Claire, La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, and extends along portions of the Wisconsin River to include areas around Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point.

The district is distinct in its geography and its politics — before Van Orden was elected in 2022, the district was represented by Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat, for 26 years.

Van Orden represents a departure from Kind and his predecessor Steve Gunderson, a moderate Republican that represented the district for 16 years from 1981 to 1997. Insead, Van Orden has made his name in politics by making brash statements in line with the far-right side of the Republican base.

Van Orden won the seat in 2022 against Brad Pfaff, also a moderate Democrat, by just four points. The rise of nationalized politics has played a role in persuading more rural voters to cast their ballots for Republicans, who have been gaining ground in the district for years.

On his campaign website, Van Orden describes himself as an “American patriot, retired Navy SEAL and Christian.” He is an ally of former President Donald Trump, and a vocal detractor of President Joe Biden. A Facebook photo from January 6th, 2021 showed Van Orden attended Trump’s rally outside the White House shortly before the Capitol attack, though he denies ever entering the building.

As a U.S. representative, Van Orden sits on three House committees in the 118th Congress — Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Veterans’ Affairs. But he might be better known for multiple outbursts in Washington, D.C., including shouting “Lies!” during Biden’s 2024 State of the Union address and a 2023 incident where he yelled at U.S. Senate pages for taking pictures in the capitol rotunda.

The three Democrats running in the 2024 primary are anticipating another close race in the general election.

Cooke also ran in the 2022 Democratic primary for the seat, where she came in second by seven points behind Pfaff. She’s a moderate more in line with Kind, with an endorsement from the Blue Dog PAC which backs Democrats in districts that Donald Trump has won in the past.

The group has had success with this approach, though have declined in numbers over recent election cycles as Democratic voters have favored more progressive candidates. Cooke entered the race in July 2023, and describes herself on her campaign website as a “fierce advocate” for small towns and rural communities.

Shankland, the second Democrat who announced her intent to run, has represented Stevens Point in the state Assembly since 2013. She hasn’t outwardly positioned herself as any more or less liberal or moderate than Cooke, but has drawn endorsements from progressive U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, as well as a number of labor unions. Shankland says she is running to “bring some common sense” to Washington, D.C. on her campaign website.

The race between Cooke and Shankland has stayed mostly positive, but the two have traded digs. Cooke told Wisconsin Examiner voters don’t want a “career politician” while Shankland has thrown jabs back over fundraising.

Wilson has positioned himself as the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary field. The third candidate to enter the race, Wilson lists “Medicare for All,” a “Green New Deal,” and a ceasefire in Gaza among his top issues on his campaign website.

Now in nearly her third year campaigning for the seat, Cooke holds a fundraising edge over the rest of the Democratic primary field.

In the first few months of 2024, Cooke reported nearly $500,000 in donations with more than $800,000 cash on hand as of April. Shankland has raised just $300,000 over the same period, with about $350,000 cash on hand. Wilson is a distant third, raising about $17,000 with the same amount on hand.

Meanwhile, Van Orden has raised more money than any of the Democratic candidates, reporting $700,000 raised in 2024, with $1.9 million total in the bank as of April.

Along with fundraising, the question about how large a turnout there will be for the primary and general election are meaningful in what’s expected to be another close race.

The 2022 midterm election — when Van Orden was elected to office — saw a similar number of voters as the previous midterm in 2018, though general elections generally have a much higher turnout. However, a lack of voter enthusiasm has experts unsure of how many voters will turn out in 2024.

In an April survey, the Marquette Law School Poll found a 20% drop in the number of people who are “very enthusiastic” to vote in the 2024 general election compared to the same point in 2020. With such small margins to be elected in Wisconsin — Van Orden won the seat by about 13,000 votes — getting a high base turnout will be key for each candidate.

The primary is set for Aug. 13, with the general election to follow on Nov. 5.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information about the exchanges between Cooke and Shankland.

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