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Wisconsin Rematch Down to Wire

For Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen, this election cycle has been a lot like a bad case of déjà vu.

Kagen, who won an open seat in the hotly contested 8th district by 2 points in 2006, is once again facing former state Speaker John Gard (R).

But it’s not only his opponent who is the same.

As in 2006, the polls show the race is very tight, and Kagen and Gard have similar cash-on-hand totals going into the final stretch.

“We always knew it was going to be a close race,” Kagen spokesman Jake Rubin said. “It was a close race in 2006, in a very divided district.”

In the traditionally Republican district, which includes Green Bay and Appleton, Kagen is looking to beat the odds in winning re-election. The 8th district has elected a Democrat for Congress only six times, including Kagen. Only one of those incumbents, former Rep. Robert Cornell, served more than one term.

One big benefit for Kagen going into November has been the on-the-ground support that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has drawn in the district. Obama is leading the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), by more than 10 points, according to recent polls — in a district that President Bush carried by 11 points four years ago. McCain’s announcement that he’s withdrawing some of his ads in Wisconsin could also help Kagen.

So far, much of the campaign rhetoric has followed the national political scene, focusing on energy and the economic crisis. Gard has hit Kagen hard on oil drilling issues and said he would not only oppose the economic bailout bill but would also not vote to raise taxes, as Kagen has. Kagen bucked the Democratic leadership, voting against the economic bailout bill this fall.

“John Gard has been talking about drilling for a while now,” Rubin said. “I think that he is taking his cues from his supporters in Big Oil. Congressman Kagen believes that we cannot drill our way out of this crisis.”

Kagen has been pushing for a three-pronged approach to energy issues: drilling in the United States, focusing on alternative-energy sources and getting rid of price manipulation.

But Gard spokesman Mark Graul said that Kagen “voted eight times to continue bans on American oil drilling. John Gard would have voted differently.”

Despite the political tit for tat, state political watchers say the race has been more dominated by the personalities of the candidates than the issues.

“Their personalities are passionate,” said Gary Goyke, a state lobbyist who represents environmental and nonprofit groups. “They bring different perspectives on issues.”

Gard, who was elected to the state Assembly at age 24, is well-known for sticking to his convictions and doesn’t shy away from a fight. As Speaker, he was credited with victories such as shepherding a welfare reform package. He also made enemies, regularly sparring with union officials.

Kagen is also known for his political prowess. An allergist, Kagen has pledged to not take the Congressional health care benefits until the same coverage is available for his constituents. He’s also been credited for helping mitigate the damage of two paper mill plants closing his district.

One recent victory for Kagen was securing the National Rifle Association’s endorsement. Although Gard has been a gun supporter, the NRA concluded that the candidates had similar records.

Still, neither politician has been able to break through with any certain lead coming into the final two weeks of the election.

In a Roll Call commissioned nonpartisan SurveyUSA poll, Kagen led Gard 52 percent to 43 percent in a poll of 616 likely voters. The Oct. 4-5 poll had a margin of error of 4 points.

The results weren’t far off from a poll commissioned by Gard’s campaign. In a survey of 400 likely voters taken Oct. 8-9, Kagen led Gard 46 percent to 44 percent. The margin of error on the survey done by Public Opinion Strategies (R) was 4.9 points.

“Obviously it’s going to come down to a few thousand votes one way or the other,” Graul said. “We are working to make sure we have a strong get-out-the-vote effort.”

The pair also had similar amounts of money going into the final stretch. Kagen slightly edged out Gard for the money lead, reporting $669,000 in his campaign coffers as of Sept. 30, compared with $608,000 for Gard. Kagen raised $314,000 in the latest reporting period compared with Gard’s $255,000. In 2006, Kagen outspent Gard $3.2 million to $2.8 million — though much of the money then came from his own pocket.

As the only competitive Congressional race in Wisconsin this cycle, the 8th district has garnered the attention of both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The NRCC sees the seat as a potential pickup. In the past couple of weeks, the NRCC has done mail drops and ad buys in the Green Bay area, and through Tuesday its independent expenditure arm had spent $531,000 on the race.

It hasn’t been alone. In addition to efforts by the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the DCCC has also committed significant resources to Kagen, with advertisements up in the 8th district since the middle of September. The DCCC has also distributed two mail pieces tying Gard to President Bush and the gas tax. Through Wednesday, the DCCC had spent $493,000 on the race.

“With our economy in crisis and middle families struggling, Northeastern Wisconsin voters are resoundingly rejecting Bush/Cheney extremist John Gard again for his vote to raise the state gas tax, troubling ethics problems and support for more of the same failed Bush economic policies,” DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.

NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said that while “this race picked up right where it left off two years ago,” Kagen will be easier to defeat this time because he has a voting record that Republicans can target.

“Since then, Steve Kagen has accumulated a record of subsidizing health care for illegal immigrants and supporting massive tax hikes,” Spain said.

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