In Wisconsin, voters ignore GOP candidate’s tie on Jan. 6

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Derrick Van Orden was among thousands of people who traveled to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally led by then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. Afterwards, Van Orden was photographed on or near the grounds of the United States Capitol, where rioters violently breached the building in one of the darkest days of American democracy.

Now Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL endorsed by Donald Trump who says he didn’t participate in the riot and set foot on Capitol grounds, looks set to win the U.S. House seat held since 1997 by retired Democratic Representative Ron Kind. Voters in Wisconsin’s Southwest District say they are more concerned about day-to-day economic issues than what happened on Jan. 6.

“He shouldn’t have been there. Don’t get me wrong,” said Rosemary Hermanson, a 60-year-old independent politician from Black River Falls. “I’m just worried about food and making sure I have gas to get to my cancer treatments.”

That’s the challenge of Democratic State Senator Brad Pfaff as he rushes into the final weeks of the November 8 election to sound the alarm and raise funds, trying to make Van Orden’s presence on the 6 January a disqualification to hold elected office. The stakes are high as Pfaff’s party seeks to arrest the slide in this once Democratic-leaning part of the country.

“I think that’s number 1. That’s the underlying problem with this race,” Pfaff said in an interview. “Jan. 6 opened the window to his soul. And what we saw there was that we saw something that is unfortunately very dark.”

Pfaff acknowledges he trails the Republican, who has a vast fundraising advantage.

Van Orden’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview with The Associated Press.

Some voters in the 3rd Congressional District, a sprawling landscape of dairy farms, small manufacturing centers and college towns, have a very negative view of what happened on Jan. 6. But that doesn’t mean they blame Van Orden.

Hermanson said she had not seen Pfaff’s advertisements on the issue. Beth Hammond, a 49-year-old Republican from nearby Taylor, who said the economy, followed closely by gun rights, was also not high on her list of concerns.

“Even if I had seen his ads, it wouldn’t matter to me,” she said. “It was not a good thing. But that’s not what’s at the heart of people’s lives now.

Even Susan Burlingame, a Black River Falls Democrat who will vote against Van Orden, said it wasn’t because of the riot.

“I’m afraid he’ll cut Social Security,” Burlingame, 80, said. “Other things are just noise.”

Their ambivalence about Pfaff’s key strategy is remarkable, given that all three are from Jackson County, the most tightly divided among the 18 in the district. It’s territory Democrat Barack Obama has won twice in his White House races, but has become more conservative as rural areas have generally done so. Trump carried the district in 2016 and 2020.

Perhaps aware of that change, Kind opted out of seeking a 14th term after beating Van Orden by less than 3 percentage points two years ago.

The district stretches north from the college town of Menomonie northwest across the Mississippi River cliffs and hills of the scenic Driftless Area and includes Chippewa Falls, home of Leinenkugel beer. From the Illinois border, it stretches 250 miles north past Prairie du Chien, the home of Van Orden, known for its Cabela outdoor equipment distribution center and 19th-century waterfront historic sites .

Pfaff, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture appointee and former secretary of agriculture, said Van Orden’s attendance at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, held shortly before without a crowd of Trump supporters storming the Capitol, suggests he would struggle to build relationships. in Congress.

“How is he going to do all this when his character and his judgment are as they are?” said Pfaff, 54, from La Crosse.

Van Orden, 53, said he was in Washington for political meetings when he decided to attend the rally near the White House. He says he didn’t march to the Capitol and he condemned the violence.

A Facebook photo from that day appears to show Van Orden posing with a small handful of protesters on the Capitol grounds. Van Orden said the suggestion that he was in the restricted area is “inaccurate”.

Pfaff and his Democratic allies are trying to make a late push.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, from the neighboring district that includes Democratic-dominated Madison, campaigned this month with Pfaff on the five smaller campuses of the University of Wisconsin system in the district. The hope was to pick up supporters in small Democratic-leaning towns from Platteville in the south to Menomonie in the north.

Pocan expressed concern that National Democrats have so far failed to commit to late money in the race and that they would reconsider.

Van Orden had collected more than six times more than Pfaff at the start of the summer. Pfaff was expected to raise just over $700,000 in the third quarter, still certain to leave him behind Van Orden by millions of dollars raised. Outside conservative groups were expected to spend more than $1 million on Van Orden in recent weeks, while an independent group pledged to spend around $500,000 on an ad condemning him.

The House Democrats’ Political Action Super Committee has earmarked $1.68 million in ad time for Pfaff, but may choose to move it elsewhere.

GOP congressional strategists said the uncertainty surrounding Pfaff’s money was telling.

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Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.

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