Updated Wednesday at 8:13 a.m.:
Tom Tiffany, a state senator endorsed by President Donald Trump, easily won a special congressional election Tuesday in a heavily conservative, rural Wisconsin district, cheering Republicans even as Democrats argued the victory revealed vulnerabilities for the president among his base.
Tiffany’s win over Democrat Tricia Zunker in northern Wisconsin’s 7th District comes in the state’s second election amid the coronavirus pandemic the past five weeks. Tiffany will replace former reality TV star Sean Duffy, a Republican who retired in September. The district has been vacant since Duffy’s retirement.
Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point, but carried the district by 20 points, in 2016. Tiffany's win over Zunker was about 6 points less than that, based on preliminary results. Tiffany rejected Democrats' argument that the smaller margin was a sign that Trump's support was waning.
“Any time you lose by 14 points, I don’t think that’s a moral victory," Tiffany said. “This is a decisive victory here.”
The win is in a district that Trump will need to once again win big if he hopes to again carry Wisconsin, a state he won by less than a point in 2016. Tiffany’s big victory also helps to erase the taste of a loss by a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in last month’s election, a race that boosted Democrats’ confidence.
“Tonight was a win for President Trump and Tom Tiffany that demonstrates the enthusiasm behind our president across Wisconsin,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Anna Kelly.
Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said the results showed a drastic swing for Democrats, even though Zunker lost by about 14 points.
“For Trump to win reelection, red areas have to get redder to balance out blue areas getting bluer," she said.
Zunker said the race “laid the groundwork for this seat to turn blue in November.”
Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board, was trying to become the first Native American from Wisconsin elected to Congress. She pulled in big-name endorsements including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but the numbers were against her. The district has been under Republican control since 2011 and was redistricted to more heavily favor Republicans.
Tiffany, 62, was born on a dairy farm in the district and ran a tourist boat business for 20 years. Joining the Legislature in 2011, he was a close ally of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker and voted to pass the anti-union law, Act 10. He also voted in favor of legalizing concealed carry and moving the state forestry division to northern Wisconsin and pushed to locate an open-pit mine in northern Wisconsin that ultimately never came to the state.
With Tiffany’s win, Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in Congress. Tiffany will serve through the end of the year, but will have to run again in November to serve a full two-year term.
Original story, Tuesday:
A special election in a rural Wisconsin district President Donald Trump carried by 20 points pits a Trump-aligned state senator against a school board president hoping to become the first Native American elected to Congress from the state.
Tuesday's election will help measure the enthusiasm of Republicans in a deeply conservative part of Wisconsin just over a month after a liberal-backed Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate won a statewide race over a Trump-backed candidate.
The winner in Wisconsin's deeply conservative 7th District will replace Republican Sean Duffy, a former star on MTV's “Real World” who held the seat since 2011 and remains a vocal Trump backer.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany faced Democrat Tricia Zunker, the Wausau School Board chair. It's the second time voters will leave their homes in five weeks to cast ballots in the middle of a stay-at-home order issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin held its presidential primary election on April 7.
Unlike that election, there have been no widespread calls to delay or otherwise alter voting for Tuesday's special election. For one thing, the massive 18,800-square-mile district is mostly rural and has very few confirmed cases of COVID-19. The district, which includes 21 counties and portions of five others, has fewer than 2% of all positive coronavirus cases in the state and less than 2.5% of all deaths.
However, about 250 members of the Wisconsin National Guard were activated to help staff polls due to a shortage of willing workers. About 2,500 Guard members were activated for the April election.
Shery Weinkauf, clerk for the village of Weston, said voters felt safe in April and the same safeguards are being put in place for Tuesday’s election. Those include keeping voters at a 6-foot distance from one another, making hand sanitizer available and having all poll workers wear masks.
“I feel much more comfortable moving forward with this election than I did with the last election, because during the last election there were so many unknowns,” Weinkauf said. “I don’t think we all knew enough what was going on with the COVID-19. And so it was that it was maybe a little scary and stressful. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has repeatedly voiced confidence about the election being held safely, citing safety measures and experience gained from holding the April election.
Voting early by mail-in absentee balloting is also strong but behind the pace set in April's statewide election. In that one, about 34% of registered voters cast ballots absentee. That amounted to about 71% of everyone who ended up voting in the election. As of Monday, just 19% of registered voters in the 7th Congressional District had returned an absentee ballot.
Tiffany, a state senator since 2011, had Trump's endorsement, but the pandemic prevented the president from campaigning in the district. Zunker, an attorney, was endorsed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a host of liberal groups, including EMILY's List and Planned Parenthood.
Tiffany, 62, was born on a dairy farm in the district and ran a tourist boat business for 20 years. Joining the Legislature in 2011, he was a close ally of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker and voted to pass Act 10, the law that all but ended the union rights of most public employees. He also voted in favor of legalizing concealed carry and moving the state forestry division to northern Wisconsin. And he pushed to locate an open pit mine in northern Wisconsin that ultimately never came to the state.
Zunker, 39, is a justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and a professor at three colleges, including one law school. Zunker is on leave from serving on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
Zunker has less money and name recognition than Tiffany, but she’s focused her effort on her home base in voter-rich Wausau where she was raised and still lives. That's at the southern edge of the 18,700-square-mile district that’s larger than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
The winner will serve the remainder of the year but will have to stand for election again in November to serve a full two-year term.