Kagen on His Gard
2006 GOP Nominee Seeking Rematch, but Others May Follow
John Gard (R) attributes his narrow loss at the hands of freshman Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.) last year to the national wave that swept 30 new House Democrats into office.
On Monday, Gard said he will try again in the Badger State’s 8th district, but this time the former state Assembly Speaker could find himself vying with three other Republicans for the GOP nomination.
“We got caught up in a tidal wave that was enough to just narrowly lose,” Gard said about his 51 percent to 49 percent defeat.
“I don’t think the majority of the 8th district voters have become liberal.”
Testing out his 2008 message, Gard said the wealthy doctor’s “outsider” image will not be enough to win Kagen a second term in the Republican-leaning district.
“Steve Kagen is the insider now,” Gard charged. “I think a lot of people have buyer’s remorse here. He has made himself an insider that is incredibly close to the liberal establishment.”
When then-8th district Rep. Mark Green (R) decided to run for governor last year, a number of Republican state legislators declined to challenge their Speaker for the open seat, leaving Gard with only one, woefully underfunded primary opponent. Now that he is out of office, Gard cannot expect such deference again.
“Well, last time the handwriting was really on the wall,” state Rep. Frank Lasee (R) said, referring to party leaders’ clear preference for Gard last year.
“It had a lot of bearing on what I did last time and this time it really has no bearing on my decision,” said Lasee, who has set an “early fall” deadline for himself to decide whether to seek the House seat.
“Whether the party helps him again this time is really immaterial to me,” Lasee said.
State Rep. Steve Wieckert agreed that Gard’s leadership post was a major factor in his decision not to run.
“It’s hard to beat a Speaker, especially in a primary,” Wieckert said. “But he’s not the Speaker anymore … we’ll have to see who wants it most.”
Wieckert said he could decide on the race as early as Labor Day or as late as Halloween.
“I’m talking to a lot of the other people who are potentially interested in running,” said Wieckert, who early in his career was an aide to Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.). “We’re communicating with each other.
“It would be nice to have one strong candidate that everybody backs,” Wieckert said.
But Lasee, who considers Wieckert, his former roommate in Madison, a good friend, is in no mood for horse trading, he said.
“The Republicans brokered a deal last time,” Lasee said. “If they are going to broker a deal this time, I’m not interested.”
Paul Jadin (R), a former Green Bay mayor who now heads the city’s Chamber of Commerce, considers all three men friends but said their actions are “not a factor” in his thought process.
Jadin said he will determine before Thanksgiving whether he wants in.
Even before Kagen stumbled early with a well-publicized tall tale he told about insulting first lady Laura Bush and taunting presidential adviser Karl Rove during a White House visit, the National Republican Congressional Committee considered him a prime target.
Gard’s decision to seek a rematch was greeted with enthusiasm in Washington, D.C.
“Steve Kagen’s willingness to align himself with the far left wing of the Democratic Party has contributed to this Congress’ open-ended commitment to putting partisanship over productivity,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.
“John Gard is a battle-tested candidate and a proven leader who we believe has what it takes to defeat Steve Kagen,” Spain added.
Gard’s would-be Republican opponents are not as certain.
“To a great extent he had paid his dues,” Wieckert said in acknowledging that Gard probably earned a clear shot at last year’s open seat.
“He ran, he had good name identification, but then again, he didn’t make it that time,” Wieckert said.
Lasee said Gard made too many enemies during his tenure as Assembly Speaker.
“There’s a lot of negative feeling about him in the district,” Lasee said. “I’m amazed by the intensity of it. Most politicians don’t usually generate that much intensity from voters, unless they’re from the other side.”
Gard dismissed the notion that voters were unhappy with the Assembly’s performance or his leadership last year.
He said the national mood, which favored Democrats, was the driving force.
“I have demonstrated that I can raise money and bring the resources together to run a really effective campaign,” Gard said. “My assessment is that I am the best-positioned person to” beat Kagen.
A spokesman for Kagen, who ended the second quarter with $337,000 in the bank, said the Appleton allergist is unconcerned about the early campaign maneuvering.
“We’re just doing our job,” said Curtis Ellis, Kagen’s spokesman.