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Race ratings: Retiring Democrat’s seat in Wisconsin could flip

GOP has well-funded candidate in district where Ron Kind is retiring

The race to fill the 3rd District seat in Wisconsin, currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, is rated Lean Republican by analyst Nathan L. Gonzales.
The race to fill the 3rd District seat in Wisconsin, currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, is rated Lean Republican by analyst Nathan L. Gonzales. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans came close to knocking off a Democratic incumbent in 2020 and picking up a House seat in Wisconsin. They’re hoping to finish the job this fall. 

In 2020, Wisconsin was integral to Joe Biden’s efforts to recreate the so-called Blue Wall in the Upper Midwest and win enough Electoral College votes to secure the White House. But it wasn’t easy. 

Biden won 49.45 percent to 48.82 percent, a margin of 20,682 votes out of more than 3.2 million cast, even though the Democratic presidential nominee had won seven of the last eight races going back to 1988. 

Despite President Donald Trump’s loss statewide, he carried the 3rd District by nearly enough to knock off longtime Democratic Rep. Ron Kind. Kind won, however, and extended to 40 the number of House races over the past decade in which neither party flipped a seat. Throughout that time, Republicans have maintained their 5-to-3 seat advantage in the delegation. 

[More House race ratings | Initial Senate race ratings]

While it had as many as 11 seats in the early 1900s, Wisconsin has had eight seats for the past two decades, the same number it had in the 1870s. 

This year, with control of the redistricting process divided between the GOP-dominated Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the new congressional map seemed destined from the outset to be decided by the courts. And the state Supreme Court removed much of the uncertainty last year by telegraphing that it would support a map that made the fewest changes to the current map, which Republicans drew a decade ago. 

As in 2020, there is likely to be intense competition for Wisconsin voters this year. But the heat of that battle will be at the top of the ticket, where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is seeking a third term after saying he would limit himself to two. 

Democrats have four major candidates: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. All but Nelson showed solid financial ability through Dec. 31, with Lasry loaning his campaign $2.9 million of the $5.2 million he raised overall and Godlewski loaning her campaign $1.4 million of the $2.9 million she raised. 

But the late primary on Aug. 2 means the eventual nominee will have little time to shore up support before shifting their focus to Johnson, who had the largest cash-on-hand total on Dec. 31 and has self-funded part of his past campaigns. 

In an environment in which Biden’s popularity has dropped, that gives Johnson the edge, and the race starts out with a Lean Republican rating. 

On the House side, seven of Wisconsin’s eight races in 2022 begin rated as either Solid Republican or Solid Democratic, but there’s a reasonable likelihood there are more competitive races in the eight years after 2022. Trump would have won GOP Rep. Bryan Steil‘s 1st District by just 2 points, making it vulnerable to a Democratic takeover in a future cycle that trends away from Republicans. 

Before that point, there could be competitive primaries, particularly in the 8th District, if GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher leaves the seat to run statewide, perhaps when Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s seat is up in 2024. Considering Trump would have won the seat by 15 points in 2020, the key race would be in the Republican primary. 

3rd District (Open; Ron Kind, D)

Ten years ago, Republicans packed Democrats into this district, but the seat has become competitive as rural voters in southwestern Wisconsin (and elsewhere) have trended Republican. 

Kind won reelection in 2020, 51 percent to 49 percent, over Republican retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden, while Trump was winning at the top of the ballot 52 percent to 47 percent. The newly drawn district is effectively unchanged, but Kind is not seeking reelection, setting up a great opportunity for Van Orden to win the open seat.

State Sen. Brad Pfaff, who has Kind’s endorsement, looks like the Democratic candidate to beat in the primary, but former Army captain/CIA officer Deb McGrath and Eau Claire boutique owner Rebecca Cooke are also running. Van Orden was a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s initial Young Guns class this cycle and had $1.4 million in his campaign account on Dec. 31. That was more than double the top three Democratic candidates combined. Democrats will highlight Van Orden’s presence on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, although there’s no evidence he was in the building. 

If the national environment is as good as believed for the GOP, this should be a takeover. Initial rating: Lean Republican.

Races rated Solid Republican

Races rated Solid Democratic

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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