(CN) — A staunch supporter of President Donald Trump won a special election to fill a vacant northern Wisconsin congressional seat Tuesday, besting a local school board president to maintain Republican leadership over a large swath of the critical battleground state.
The race was called for two-term Wisconsin state Senator Tom Tiffany just after 9 p.m. Central time Tuesday, at which point Tiffany had 57% of the vote and held a comfortable lead over Tricia Zunker, an associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and president of the Wausau School Board, who had 42% with 78% of votes counted.
The Badger State’s 7th Congressional District, comprising all or some of 26 counties throughout the state’s rural north, came up for grabs when Republican U.S. Representative Sean Duffy resigned in September ahead of the birth of his child who was expected to have health problems.
Tiffany ran very much in line with hard-right Trump initiatives, particularly on hot button issues like gun rights, immigration and protecting the unborn. Those points seemed to resonate with Northwoods voters, indicating Trump has a good shot to continue his success in a region he won by 20 points in the 2016 general election.
However, the conservative’s margin of victory was smaller than Duffy’s most recent 2016 and 2018 reelection wins in the 7th District, in which he won by more than 20 points both times over his liberal challenger.
This may be an indication that Democrats have a window for success in a district where Hillary Clinton failed to gain traction in the 2016 presidential election but the odds are still long. The historically purple 7th District was represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey from 1969 until he resigned in 2010, at which point Duffy took over, aided in part by controversial redistricting after the 2010 census that rendered the district friendlier turf for Republicans.
Zunker attempted to straddle the Democratic party’s ideological divide by taking up progressive positions on issues like campaign finance reform and far-reaching criminal justice reforms, while keeping a moderate “Medicare for all who want it” stance on health care. And while she did manage comfortable wins in the more liberal Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland counties, the gap was too much to bridge in the end.
“We showed what can be done, and we laid the groundwork for this seat to turn blue in November,” she said in a concession video Tuesday night.
Tuesday was the second time in a little over a month that Wisconsinites headed to the polls during the Covid-19 pandemic. The state’s April 7 primary was shrouded in chaos and confusion as municipalities scrambled to carry out a safe election at the last minute with critical shortages of supplies and personnel, while also handling a record 1.3 million absentee ballots.
Things seemed to go smoother in northern Wisconsin on Tuesday, though, as there were no such reported shortages or similar problems managing the ballot box for the 420,000-plus voters in the district, 69,000 of which had already had absentee ballots counted as returned as of Monday.
Lines were rare and short at polling places in the border towns of Hudson and Somerset on Tuesday despite some consolidation of polling locations to save personal protective equipment. With two polling places each, local officials in Hudson noted that the in-person turnout was much lower than it had been during the state’s presidential primary and Supreme Court election on April 7.
The mood at Hudson’s firehouse, which hosted voting for two-thirds of the city’s voters, was easygoing early in the morning, with Police Chief Geoff Willems and Finance Director Alison Egger making casual conversation with voters in the parking lot.
By 9:30 a.m. the vote count at the firehouse had reached 114. Hudson’s other polling place, a Methodist church a few miles away, reported a total of 72 voters minutes earlier. That seemed low to Willems, who said there’d been over 700 voters in April.
“Where’d the other 600 go?” he asked. “I blame Russia,” he added, cracking a grin through a black-and-blue striped mask.
Despite their smaller size, the town and village of Somerset — two separate political entities along the Apple River with populations of 4,000 and 2,600, respectively — saw a much higher rate of in-person voting, with 101 voters in the village around 10:30 a.m. and 474 in the town just after 11 a.m.
Polling places in both Somersets employed their own social-distancing strategies. In the village, an official at the door listed Covid-19 symptoms to one voter, asking if he’d experienced any of them. The town’s polling place offered free ballpoint pens to all voters, asking that they vote and take the pen home rather than leaving it for other voters to reuse.
Voters exiting the polls overwhelmingly said they were impressed with election workers’ efforts to make voting safe during the pandemic, though some said they’d like to see more remote voting.
“They do a real good job,” Bill Bengston of the village of Somerset said of poll workers’ sanitization and social-distancing efforts. He said he also voted in person for the April 7 election.
“I’m a little old school,” he chuckled.
In Hudson, Lori Laatsch took her 18-month-old granddaughter Zuri with her to City Hall, across the street from the fire station, to drop off her son’s mail-in ballot. She’d voted for Zunker by mail awhile earlier, she said.
“Last time I voted in person, but I made sure I was the first one” in order to avoid the crowds, Laatsch said of last month’s primary election.
“It would be great if everyone could do it by mail,” she added. “I appreciate all the precautions being taken … but there might still be people contracting Covid from being out and about to vote.”
Wisconsin reported 198 new confirmed cases and nine deaths on Monday, bringing the state’s total cases to 10,611 and its death toll to 418.
The Badger State managed to avoid a large spike in cases in the wake of the April 7 election, in which 1.5 million voters cast ballots. Wisconsinites supported former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primary and elected Democrat-backed Jill Karofsky to the state’s high court.
Despite there being no evidence of a spike in cases, state health officials have said that 67 confirmed Covid-19 cases were people who voted in person last month, but they have only definitively connected 19 of those cases to the primary election.
That success came as a pleasant surprise after Wisconsin became an early proving ground for elections under the threat of a pandemic. The state received national attention when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballots cast in the election could not be processed after Election Day.
Poll workers quit en masse, leaving 300 National Guard troops to replace the volunteers, and questions remain about the processing of those absentee ballots. A federal lawsuit from disenfranchised voters also seeks to loosen restrictions for 2020’s remaining elections, and Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order has been also challenged in the state’s right-leaning Supreme Court.
Tiffany, like Duffy, was endorsed by Trump and lists “standing with President Trump” as the first issue on his website. Bengston, the voter in the village of Somerset, said Tuesday he supported Tiffany, naming taxes as his big issue.
“The old saying is, if you want to pay higher taxes, vote Democrat,” he said. “And I like to hold on to some of that money myself.”
Jean Anderson, of Hudson, said she was impressed by Tiffany’s character.
“I’ve known of him for a while,” she said, waiting in line at United Methodist Church in Hudson, which maintained a three-household limit inside, “and I think he’s a good guy.”
For Zunker voter Mark Okerson, of the town of Somerset, this special election was a referendum on the nation’s trajectory.
“I’m leaning more toward the Democratic side. It seems like in the last 10 years, they seem to have more interest in bringing the country forward,” he said.
The pandemic exemplified that view for Okerson, who said Republican leadership had dropped the ball in handling the crisis.
“We’re just totally unprepared now, and there’s really no excuse,” he said. “Hopefully better times are coming.”
Trump applauded Tiffany’s victory in a tweet Tuesday night, saying Tiffany “will do a FANTASTIC job for the people of Wisconsin, and the United States.”
Tiffany is expected to report to Washington, D.C., to begin work in Congress as soon as next week. He won’t have much time to celebrate, however, as he has to prepare to face another election this November, where he is expected to face off against Zunker again.