APPLETON, Wis. — The votes for or against Rep. Steve Kagen are no national matter. The race is personal here, where newly nominated Republican Reid Ribble graduated from Appleton East High School six years after Kagen did.
Kagen runs a group of allergy clinics in the area and his father and brother are local dermatologists, giving further prominence to the Kagen name. Ribble is no less visible as president of the Kaukauna-based roofing business that was passed down from his father nearly 30 years ago.
In a year when being a Democrat and an incumbent aren’t necessarily good things, Ribble seeks to sharpen the contrast by emphasizing his business credentials and lack of political experience. Kagen refers to himself not as Congressman Kagen but as Dr. Kagen. He said that’s the way voters see him, even after four years in the House.
“Certainly I’m not a professional politician,” he said this week. “I’m a doctor who’s fighting hard to secure access for everybody.”
At the Queen Bee, a diner with a bright, yellow and black logo in downtown Appleton, two retired voters were split on whether the incumbent’s reputation as a doctor is an asset. Alice Vercanteren, a retired Piggly Wiggly checker from Appleton, said Kagen’s father was her doctor and that she has liked the Congressman since she met him 15 years ago.
Her lunch date, Robert Allison, disagreed. A Neenah resident, Allison said he would vote for Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in his race but would support Ribble for the House.
“I don’t like Kagen because I heard how he wouldn’t accept Medicare/Medicaid patients,” Allison said.
Another retired voter at the diner, Republican Ed Perkins, said he heard Kagen wouldn’t accept military patients.
Kagen called the charges an “absolute lie,” leftover attacks from the tough 2006 campaign that won’t go away.
Kagen said he plans to emphasize his success in fighting for health care reform. He took credit for informing then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 of discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions; they then added that protection to their campaign platforms, he said, and it was included in the health care bill Obama signed into law earlier this year.
Kagen said he also wants to tell voters about his success bringing a Veterans Affairs surgical outpatient clinic to Green Bay and a new bridge to College Avenue, the street the Queen Bee is on in Appleton, as well as his work on the farm bill.
“I think what voters here are going to be thinking is, whose side is Dr. Kagen on?” he said.
This Is a Swing District’
Three days after his better-than-expected primary win, Ribble paused while working the phones in his Green Bay campaign office to discuss his strategy in Wisconsin’s lightning-quick six-week general election.
“Now, it’s a matter of articulating a message that I believe is going to resonate with a broader audience,” he said. “This is a swing district. Let’s face it, Republicans are going to vote for me, conservatives are going to vote for me, Democrats are going to vote for Kagen. So it’s that group, that true centrist group in the middle, that true independent voter — those are the voters we’re trying to move.”
This is Ribble’s first campaign. As president of the Ribble Group, his family’s commercial and industrial roofing business, at one time he employed more than 100 employees, but that number dropped to fewer than 50 last year. He said he has a clear understanding of the economic challenges of voters.
Ribble won the Sept. 14 primary with 48 percent of the vote. Runner-up Roger Roth, a two-term state Representative and the nephew of former longtime U.S. Rep. Toby Roth, finished second with 32 percent. Former state Rep. Terri McCormick, who also lost in the Republican primary in 2006, finished third with 18 percent.
“I think he worked harder than anybody else,” said Chris Wilson, president of Wilson Research Strategies and Ribble’s pollster. “It’s an electorate that is looking for candidates who have created jobs and balanced a budget and met a payroll, and he’s done all that.”
Ribble was named to the lowest tier of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program in October 2009, and he was promptly promoted to the top tier following his primary victory. Former state Speaker John Gard, the 2006 and 2008 Republican nominee against Kagen, endorsed Ribble about three weeks before the primary.
“To win this seat you really need to have a broad coalition of support,” NRCC spokesman Tom Erickson said. He cited support from motorcyclists and the faith-based community as key in both Ribble’s primary win and the committee’s support.
In the general election, Ribble’s strategy isn’t much different from the one Kagen used when he was first elected in 2006.
“We even sound the same,” Ribble said. “In his first commercial, [he said] I want to balance the federal budget, I want to cap the national debt, I want to secure our borders.’ He did none of those, by the way. Our borders are less secure, the debt is higher and the budget has been ballooned. To that extent, the difference is: I mean it.”
Kagen is now airing a new commercial, this one critical of Ribble. In an ad titled “Reid Ribble in His Own Words,” a narrator shows a town hall where Ribble said he would phase out the Social Security system.
Ribble said he does see Social Security as a broken system.
“The problem we have is that you don’t have enough workers to fund retirees, and we have demographics that are working against it,” he said.
Kagen’s goal is to portray Ribble as unsympathetic to the needs of average citizens, many of whom count on Social Security now or expect to someday. But he makes the argument at a time when voter affections are drifting away from his party. For Kagen, the difference between winning that argument and losing it may come down to a split table at a hole-in-the-wall diner in downtown Appleton.