Elections have been pretty mundane in Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District the past four decades, with re-electing Capitol Hill stalwart Rep. David R. Obey a mere formality for most of his 21 terms.
Not so in 2010.
When Mr. Obey announced in May he was stepping down, voters in his largely rural northwest Wisconsin district suddenly were exposed to a lively, close — and often negative — House campaign for one of the first times in more than a generation.
And in another break from recent tradition, a Republican is in good position to represent the massive district — the state's largest, geographically — since Mr. Obey's predecessor, Melvin Laird, left Congress to become President Nixon's defense secretary in 1969.
Republican Sean Duffy, a former district attorney who gained fame as a youth by winning lumberjack competitions and as an MTV "Real World" cast member, is pitted against state Sen. Julie Lassa.
Handicapping the race is difficult as few independent polls have been conducted. But with Mr. Duffy, 39, aided by a national pro-Republican wave and a few early Lassa campaign missteps, most political experts peg him as the favorite.
"Republicans have been hoping and hoping and hoping to find the right kind of candidate, and they've tried every decade, and Sean Duffy is looking like a pretty solid candidate as far as they're concerned," said Dennis Riley, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, which is located in the district.
"He's young ... he was raised in part of the district, he's a good campaigner, he's active, interested, organized."
David Wasserman, who covers House races for the independent Cook Political Report, said Mrs. Lassa, 40, "has run a very weak campaign," whereas Mr. Duffy successfully has portrayed himself as an independent-minded outsider.
In one Duffy campaign television advertisement, the candidate, wearing a red-checkered flannel shirt, literally log-rolls a "career politician" into a lake, a subtle swipe at Mr. Obey and Mrs. Lassa.
"He's great at the sales pitch, and the Democrats and Lassa haven't been able to match that," Mr. Wasserman said.
Mr. Duffy had the advantage of campaigning months ahead of Mrs. Lassa, who only entered the race after Mr. Obey announced his retirement less than six months ago.
University of Wisconsin at Madison political science professor Charles H. Franklin said Mrs. Lassa stumbled early, appearing somewhat unfocused on TV while struggling to develop identifiable campaign themes.
"That may be partly her (or) it may be just that Democrats generally are having a hard time finding the themes that are going to carry them to victory this year," Mr. Franklin said.
The race means more to both parties than simply capturing one of the House's 435 seats. With Mr. Obey serving as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and holding the seat for more than 40 years, a Republican win would be a symbolic boost for the party and an embarrassment for Democrats.
"By winning the seat Chairman Obey now holds and defeating his handpicked successor, Republicans will be sending Washington Democrats a message that no seat is safe from the backlash over their failed economic agenda," said Tom Erickson, a spokesman with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the fundraising arm of House Republicans.
The Duffy and Lassa campaigns have attracted $3 million in outside spending, with more than half coming from the House Democratic and Republican fundraising committees, says the independent Open Secrets website. The district is among the 20 most expensive House races in the country for outside contributors.
"Shady outside groups are spending millions to buy this election for Sean Duffy because they know he would be a reliable special-interest ally in Congress," said Gabby Adler, a spokeswoman with the NRCC's Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But the breakdown of outside help between the two — excluding the DCCC and NRCC — is nearly even: about $722,500 for Mrs. Lassa and about $678,000 for Mr. Duffy.
Big spenders include the Democratic-leaning America's Families First Action Fund, which spent $375,200 to oppose Mr. Duffy, and the politically conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which shelled out almost $266,600 supporting the Republican candidate.
While "tea party" activists generally have backed Mr. Duffy, his campaign isn't as stridently conservative as other favorites of the movement, such as Senate candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada and Christine O'Donnell of Delaware.
Mr. Duffy, conscious of the slightly Democratic-leaning electorate of his district, has been careful not to overplay his Republican hand, Mr. Riley said.
"He's running a Republican race, but he's running a 7th District Republican race," Mr. Riley said. "He's making his own campaign, based on his own vision of who he is and what he wants to do."
"He's doing what he wants to do, and I don't think he's worried about all the outsiders. They're very helpful, but he's trying to stay low-keyed."
When Mr. Duffy said he supported Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan's "Roadmap for America," which includes a private option for new Social Security enrollees, the Lassa campaign and Democrats accused Mr. Duffy of wanting to dismantle the government retirement program.
But Mr. Duffy quickly rebutted those accusations by saying that he doesn't want to privatize Social Security - and in doing so reinforced his image as an independent thinker, Mr. Franklin said.
Whether Democratic voters angry at Mr. Obey direct their frustrations at Mrs. Lassa or Mr. Duffy remains uncertain.
Yet despite Mr. Duffy's campaign success, Mrs. Lassa still is very much in the race, many experts say. She hails from the Wausau/Stevens Point area - the district's population center - as opposed to Mr. Duffy, who grew up in region's relatively rural north. She has a slight fundraising edge. And the district, while not a liberal bastion, historically hasn't been overly sympathetic to Republicans, either.
"She is not out of this race by any means, but she's certainly not ahead," said Mr. Riley, who taught Mrs. Lassa two decades ago at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. "If you absolutely had to bet a 100 bucks, I'd suppose you'd have to bet 100 bucks on Sean Duffy. But I think it's pretty close."
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