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Outside groups flock to Wisconsin race to replace Sean Duffy

Nearly $2 million spent in battle for open seat in solidly red GOP district

Sean Duffy in a suit and tie sitting in front of a laptop
An endorsement from former Rep. Sean Duffy could have an impact in the GOP primary in next week’s special election to fill the seat he vacated in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo) ()

It’s not often that the Club for Growth, the House Freedom Caucus and the Chamber of Commerce are on the same side in a Republican primary, but that’s the case in the race to replace former Rep. Sean P. Duffy.

All three groups are backing Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany in Wisconsin’s 7th District, where voters head to the polls in one week for the special election primary. Tiffany faces Army veteran Jason Church, who lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Outside groups are pouring money into the race to boost Church’s candidacy as well.

The level of outside spending in the GOP primary underscores the likelihood that the victor would be well-positioned to win the May 12 special general election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

“Whoever wins the primary is there for life, so if you want somebody that takes your side of the issue, this is the time,” said Brandon Scholz, a former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Outside spending

Outside groups have spent nearly $2 million on the primary so far. The outside spending for both candidates could make for a close race, said GOP strategists, especially with an unpredictable turnout for a special election primary.

More than $1 million has been spent backing Church, a political newcomer. Roughly half of that comes from With Honor Fund, which supports veteran candidates in both parties. Another group, Americans 4 Security PAC, has spent $294,000 on his behalf. With Honor Fund did not respond to requests for comment.

Americans 4 Security PAC was founded in January and its only activity so far has been supporting Church. Reached via an email address on the group’s FEC filing, a spokesperson called Church a “conservative, principled, outsider” who would be effective in Congress.

More than $640,000 has been spent so far to support Tiffany, according to independent expenditure filings with the Federal Election Commission. And that figure does not include an additional $149,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Tiffany last week and launched a television ad.

Ashlee Rich Stephenson, vice president and national political director for the chamber, said the group’s partners in Wisconsin vouched for Tiffany.

“As a leader in the state Legislature and as a business owner, he embodies the gold standard of fiscal responsibility,” Stephenson said in a phone interview.

Groups backing Tiffany cited his support for regulatory and legal reforms while in the Legislature. He was elected to the state Senate in 2012 after a term in the state Assembly. Tiffany was a staunch ally of former Gov. Scott Walker, who has endorsed him in the race.

The range of groups supporting Tiffany is notable because the Club for Growth and the Chamber of Commerce have been on opposite sides in some GOP primaries.

“On this one we all came together,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, which has been responsible for the bulk of the pro-Tiffany spending. “I think that’s a testament to how strong [he] is.”

McIntosh said the club backed Tiffany because he is a “free-market, pro-growth conservative.” The group interviewed both candidates, but McIntosh said some of Church’s stances appeared to align him with unions. Church does not support eliminating federal prevailing wage laws, which require contractors to pay local wages on public projects. The issue is one of the few policy differences between the two candidates, and Church faced some criticism for changing his position on the issue on a questionnaire for a construction trade group.

Church said in an interview on WTAQ in December that he changed his mind after campaigning in the district and learning how prevailing wage laws benefit families in rural northern Wisconsin who are struggling to find good-paying jobs in the area.

Much of the outside spending has centered on positive TV ads. Americans for Prosperity Action, which has backed Tiffany, is using its grassroots network to host phone banks and canvass, encouraging voters to head to the polls.

The outside group action could help both candidates in a low-turnout special election, GOP operatives monitoring the primary said.

“Both of them are first-time congressional candidates so they’re still getting their name out there,” said Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul, who is not involved in the race. Positive ads from outside groups “can do nothing but help both candidates and help maybe encourage some people to go vote.”

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Different backgrounds

Ads by outside groups have focused on the two candidates’ backgrounds, the main dividing line in the race.

Asked to distinguish themselves from their opponent in a debate last week on Wisconsin Public Radio, both candidates stressed their different experiences.

“I never wanted to be in politics. I wanted to serve our country in uniform. But when I lost my legs, I still didn’t lose my desire to serve,” Church said. “I’m not a career politician.”

Tiffany stressed his roots in the district and what he learned as a small-business owner who ran wilderness cruises.

“It’s all those life experiences, seeing the impact of high taxes, excessive regulations, which is what caused me to run for the Legislature back in 2010,” he said. “I’m a proven conservative, and I will be the same out in Washington, DC.”

Church is hoping his political outsider status will resonate with voters who support President Donald Trump. The 7th District backed Trump by 20 points in 2016, the widest margin of the six congressional districts he won in Wisconsin. Church, a former aide to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, has stressed that he supported Trump from “Day One.” Tiffany initially endorsed Walker in the 2016 primary, and then backed Cruz before supporting Trump.

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Although loyalty to the president has been a top issue in GOP primaries, Tiffany’s allies don’t think his past endorsements will be a problem, citing his roots in the district and support from an array of GOP leaders.

“It’s a hit that didn’t stick because Tiffany supported President Trump and his election, and almost no conservatives in Wisconsin supported Trump out of the gate,” said Eric Bott, a senior adviser to Americans for Prosperity.

Tiffany also has the support of Duffy, a Republican who was one of the president’s most vocal supporters in the House. Duffy resigned from Congress in September after learning his future child would be born with a heart condition. Tiffany’s campaign launched a radio ad last week featuring Duffy, who describes the state senator as “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-liberty and pro-Trump, with a record to prove it.” Duffy’s support could be crucial in the race since he was popular in the district, especially among Republicans.

“If you are a Sean Duffy supporter, you’re going to go with who Sean Duffy likes,” said Scholz, the former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Whoever wins the GOP primary is likely to face Tricia Zunker, the top Democrat in the race. Zunker, who is Native American, is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Ho-Chunk Nation. She is also president of the Wausau School Board.

While Republicans are confident the seat will remain in their hands, the district has some history of supporting Democrats. Longtime Democratic Rep. David R. Obey held the seat for more than four decades until he retired in 2010, when Duffy flipped it for the GOP. Voters in the 7th District also backed former President Barack Obama in 2008, but supported Republicans for president in 2012 and 2016. 

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