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Gard Asks Wisconsin Voters for Second Opinion in Rematch With Kagen

Open wide and say “Ah.” Because now that freshman Rep. Steve Kagen (D) is in the incumbent hot seat, former Speaker John Gard (R) would like to give him a taste of his own medicine.

Kagen, an allergist by trade, spent millions of his own money to defeat Gard in the closest open-seat race in the country in 2006. In that cycle, Gard was a state legislator with a record running to replace then-Rep. Mark Green (R), who stepped down to run for governor.

Wisconsin Democratic strategist Evan Zeppos said this race isn’t a sure thing for either party right now.

“If I were Dr. Kagen, I certainly wouldn’t take anything for granted,” Zeppos said. “He’s certainly going to have to bring his A-game to re-election.”

Kagen, however, is buoyed by the political environment in the state, Zeppos said. Democrats likely won’t make huge national gains like they did in the 2006 cycle, but Zeppos said the environment is still very bad for Republicans in the Badger State.

And according to Gard, the most important difference this time around is that he can challenge Kagen on his record in Washington.

“Every campaign is different. I just believe that the definite factor in the 2008 campaign is that Congressman Kagen has a voting record, and it is in stark contrast to a number of the positions he took in the 2006 campaign,” Gard said in a phone interview.

Nonetheless, for a race that echoed across the Midwest in 2006, the campaigns have been muted the past year. Gard said he deliberately waited until after the state’s presidential primaries were done before he announced his campaign last week.

“I just felt a lot of people felt an aggressive campaign that takes about two-thirds of the year is long enough, and both Congressman Kagen and I are fairly well-known,” Gard said. “We thought about announcing earlier, but honestly I just felt like people would appreciate what I’d call a ‘tighter’ campaign.”

What’s more, a presidential contest might change the turnout dynamics of the race. President Bush won the district with 55 percent in 2004, but Democratic registrations have increased in the state following the hyped presidential primary earlier this year.

One Republican source in Washington called Gard “probably the best candidate who ran in 2006 and didn’t win.”

“The big questions will be what is Kagen willing to do with his own cash again?” the GOP source said.

While Kagen could position himself as an outsider in 2006, his political inexperience showed during his first year in office. He made a few public gaffes during that time, including recalling an encounter in which he taunted former White House adviser Karl Rove and insulted the first lady in an alternative newsweekly.

“Kagen has had his missteps, and perhaps showed a little bit of immaturity early on,” Zeppos said.

But in the past year, Kagen also appears to have kept quiet, possibly in preparation for his rematch bid. In a statement, Kagen’s campaign said he was working hard for his northeastern Wisconsin district.

“Congressman Kagen is working hard with Republicans and Democrats alike to bring about the changes we need, like reducing gas prices, cutting taxes for the middle class, access to affordable health care, and bringing more higher-wage jobs back to Wisconsin where they belong,” his campaign said in a statement.

But Kagen’s new role as the incumbent in the race is certainly a fact national Republicans plan to exploit this fall. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said Kagen can’t hide from his “liberal” record this time around.

“Steve Kagen is unabashedly liberal, and he has the record to prove it,” Spain said. “When you vote with Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time on issues like tax hikes and cuts to Medicare, it is kind of hard to go back to the voters and claim you are an agent of change. John Gard is a candidate of the highest caliber, and he will present the voters with a clear choice in this election.”

But Democrats counter that Gard can’t hide from his tenure leading the Wisconsin General Assembly. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said the same votes that led to his defeat last cycle will do so again this year.

“Whether it’s his voting to raise the state gas tax on Wisconsin drivers, his declaration that there’s no doubt lobbyists have a role in shaping his viewpoint, or his fighting to kill anti-corruption legislation as Speaker of the State Assembly, career politician and per diem manipulator extraordinaire John Gard was rejected by northeastern Wisconsin voters in 2006 and will again in 2008,” Rudominer said.

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