Wisconsin Republicans are hoping to deliver a dose of the “real world” to powerful incumbent Democrat Rep. David R. Obey next year, but the definition of “reality” is up for debate between the top party’s two contenders.
And the hard political reality of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, which stretches from the center of the state through farmland and logging operations northwest to Lake Superior, is likely to leave Republicans in the dust for another election cycle.
Sean Duffy, a former star on MTV’s “The Real World,” is running against Mr. Obey, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, hoping to exploit the Wisconsin Democrat’s work in crafting the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.
Mr. Duffy, who now works as a district attorney in northern Wisconsin, said the stimulus bill and plans to pay for a major health care reform bill have voters worried about their future.
“I have been focusing on fiscal irresponsibility in D.C. and Dave Obey’s role in bankrupting the country and passing on massive debt to the next generation and the generations after that,” Mr. Duffy said Monday in an interview with The Washington Times.
It’s a long shot, but if elected, it is thought that Mr. Duffy would be the first reality-show star to make the transition from the small screen to the halls of Congress. Mr. Duffy, employed as a lumberjack at the time, appeared on the durable MTV show in 1997, holed up with fellow contestants in a house in Boston.
Daniel Mielke, a Republican farmer who ran unsuccessfully last year against Mr. Obey, says “real” voters don’t want another lawyer in Washington representing them.
Mr. Mielke says he thinks voters — particularly those packing town-hall meetings across the nation — want more grass-roots organizers like himself in Congress.
“We’re losing our constitutional rights and freedoms,” Mr. Mielke said Friday, in an interview with The Washington Times. “Dave Obey has a very extensive voting record. Most of [his votes] tend to lean toward a very controlling government.”
Mr. Obey’s backers brush off the idea he will be seriously challenged.
“Congressman Obey has been tirelessly working to put government on the side of the regular people for 40 years,” said Maggie Brick, executive director of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party. “There’s really no doubt he’ll be re-elected to Congress.”
Ms. Brick said that charges of fiscal irresponsibility overlook the jobs saved by stimulus spending and vital services, including education, which were spared from budget cuts.
“I think that is a criticism the voters will wholeheartedly reject,” she said.
Mr. Obey has held the seat for 40 years, since he won a special election in 1969.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted Mr. Obey’s seat as one of 70 Democrat seats it hopes to flip in 2010 in a long-shot bid to reclaim control of the House of Representatives.
Mr. Duffy and Mr. Mielke have hung their arguments against Mr. Obey on a statement the congressman made in February that he “wrote” the stimulus bill.
But any Republican challenger is going to have trouble overcoming a huge base of Democratic support. The respected Cook Political Report gives the district its strongest rating for staying in Democratic hands.
Mr. Obey bested his last two Republican opponents by more than 20 percentage points, and he handily won election in 2004 with no challenge from a Republican.
“It’s not a race that we’ve followed in recent cycles and not a race that immediately looks like it’s ripe for a competitive contest,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Political Report.
“The race seems to get the most attention because of Duffy’s [television] profile rather than because of the competitiveness of the race itself,” Mr. Gonzales said of Mr. Duffy’s appearance on “The Real World.”
Mr. Duffy said he is banking on a superior campaign organization spearheaded by Wisconsin Republican consultant Darrin Schmitz, who helped carry state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen into office, and name recognition based on his “Real World” celebrity to overcome Mr. Obey’s advantage.
“It is a seat Republicans can pick up,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “It’s going to take a well-run, well-funded campaign to do it.”
While the state party is not taking sides in the Republican primary, the tension between the two Republicans is evident.
“I think we need a candidate who is electable. I believe I’m that candidate,” Mr. Duffy said.
Mr. Mielke countered that his unpolished style would play better with voters disillusioned by Mr. Obey’s work on the stimulus bill.
Mr. Duffy is “more of a polished, celebrity-style politician,” Mr. Mielke said. “I’ve got a beard, and I’ve worked my whole life.”