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Tom Tiffany keeps Duffy seat in GOP hands in Wisconsin

Democrats had hoped for upset after April judicial election

Rep. Sean P. Duffy resigned his seat in September, setting up Tuesday’s special election in Wisconsin.
Rep. Sean P. Duffy resigned his seat in September, setting up Tuesday’s special election in Wisconsin. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany won the special election in Wisconsin on Tuesday to fill former GOP Rep. Sean P. Duffy’s House seat in a race that both parties were watching for signs of how President Donald Trump would do in November.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Tiffany, a former owner with his wife of a river cruise line, defeated Democrat Tricia Zunker, the Wassau School Board president, 57 percent to 43 percent in the 7th District, which stretches from central to northwestern Wisconsin.

The special election was triggered by Duffy’s resignation in September after learning that his unborn ninth child had a heart condition that would require surgery.

The 7th District has been fertile territory for Republicans in recent years. President Donald Trump carried it by 20 points in 2016, while Duffy won a fifth term two years later by a similar margin.

Tiffany, a staunch conservative, centered his campaign around his support for Trump, and the president tweeted his support in April and again in the week before the election.

But Democrats saw an opportunity after statewide elections in April, when progressive Jill Karofsky won a state Supreme Court seat by 11 points — even though she lost the 7th District by 6 points, according to calculations by Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

In the April election, Wisconsin officials forged ahead with in-person voting in spite of a statewide lockdown to control the coronavirus. Democratic anger over the decision fueled a get-out-the-vote effort and helped contribute to Karofsky’s surprise victory.

Democratic activists tried to inspire a similar excitement for Zunker. An associate justice for the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, Zunker was bidding to become the third Native American woman elected to Congress. She was endorsed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, all former presidential candidates.

Zunker raised more money in the six months before the election than the last two Democrats who ran in the district combined, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. But she still couldn’t catch up with Tiffany. As of April 22, he had raised $1.3 million to Zunker’s $453,000 and outspent her $1.1 million to $328,000, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The special election was held in-person, although election officials urged voters to cast absentee ballots.

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