In a midterm election year where Democrats were looking at a tough map of US House contests, Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District shaped up as something of a bright spot. A rural, small-town, and small-city district with a long history of sending Democrats to Congress, the third was set in 2022 for an open-seat contest between a noisy conservative Republican named Derrick Van Orden, who won 48 percent of the vote in 2020, and Democrat Brad Pfaff, a state senator with a track record of leadership on farm issues.
The race wasn’t going to be easy for either party. But it should have been a no-brainer for D.C. Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the party’s strategists, consultants, and donors simply needed to recognize that keeping the third was mission critical in a difficult midterm election year where the fight for control of the House would come down to a few key contests. By any measure, in a district that had voted Democratic in six of the past eight presidential elections, this was a winnable contest.
The problem is that D.C. Democrats are, in fact, brainless when it comes to substantially rural districts like the third. So the party, which in recent years has lost one rural enclave after another in the Upper Midwest, missed an incredible opportunity in western Wisconsin this year.
Pfaff lost by a mere 3.6 percent of the vote out of almost 320,000 ballots cast—making the third one of the closest results for an open-seat contest nationwide.
The Democrat didn’t go down because he got hit by the largely nonexistent “Republican wave” of 2022. He fell behind because D.C. Democrats chose not to fight.
In early October, Axios observed, “Wisconsin Democrat Brad Pfaff, running to succeed retiring Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), isn’t getting any outside backup in his race against Republican Derrick Van Orden. House Majority PAC reserved time in the district later this month, but a source familiar with the group’s plans said it intends to cancel those reservations.”
After the election, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not invest any money in Pfaff, and Pfaff was not on the committee’s ‘Red to Blue’ list, which puts a focus, along with extra resources, on the party’s key races.”
The third wasn’t the only largely rural district where the D.C. Democrats abandoned their candidate. Winnable contests in Oregon and Texas experienced similar neglect. But the race in Wisconsin provides a stark example of the party’s penchant for kicking its rural candidates to the curb. And as the battle for control of the House comes down to a handful of seats, we’re reminded that one of the biggest challenges Democrats face is their own myopia.
Indeed, if Democrats lose the House by one seat—a prospect that is not beyond the realm of possibility—the third could be the seat that would have made all the difference.
What could Pfaff have done with a relatively small infusion of campaign cash in the final weeks of the campaign? That’s no mystery.
The Democrat could have held Van Orden, a flawed candidate mired in multiple controversies, to account for his association with Donald Trump’s cabal of election deniers, for his harassment of a teenage librarian over a display of books on LGBTQ subjects, and for getting caught with a loaded gun in his carry-on bag as he tried to board a plane. “I talked to [the DCCC] until I was blue in the face that Derrick Van Orden was eminently beatable because he was just a target-rich opportunity,” retiring Democratic US Representative Ron Kind told the Journal Sentinel, while US Representative Mark Pocan, a savvy Wisconsin Democrat who is the former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he kept telling Democratic funders that the third represented a “real opening” for the party.
But the opening was never seized. The money never came.
Van Orden and the Republicans owned the airwaves in October and early November.
Going into the election, Open Secrets found that Van Orden’s campaign had a $5 million advantage over Pfaff’s campaign. Democrats estimated they were outspent four-to-one by Republicans supporting their opponent.
Pfaff was cut off by his own party’s leaders because they identified him as a “weak” candidate.
But he wasn’t weak. In fact, Pfaff came within a whisker of winning. He gained more than 48 percent of the vote—a higher percentage than other prominent House candidates, such as Virginia Representative Elaine Luria and New Jersey’s Tom Malinowski, whom Democratic groups prioritized as their top picks. Pfaff won the district’s three largest counties, and he kept the Democratic percentages in the rural counties in the high forties, proving the Democrat could remain competitive in regions he targeted with his message of strong support for family farmers.
“There is simply no spinning this: Derrick Van Orden is underperforming expectations” in the third, Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of La Crosse wrote on election night. “And plenty of Democrats are going to be furious at the party organizations and affiliated PACs for not giving Brad Pfaff some help in this one.”
That help would have made all the difference.
But it never arrived, and Brad Pfaff, who turned out to be one of the strongest candidates the Democrats had in a competitive open-seat race this year, had no choice but to explain to his supporters a few days after the election, “I firmly believe if there would have been greater resources that would have been provided, we would’ve won this race.”