Pres. Trump-backed Tom Tiffany wins Wisconsin congressional race

MADISON — Republican Tom Tiffany, a state senator endorsed by President Donald Trump, easily won a special congressional election Tuesday in a heavily conservative, rural Wisconsin district.

Tiffany’s win over Democrat Tricia Zunker in northern Wisconsin’s 7th District comes in the state’s second election amid the coronavirus pandemic the past five weeks. Tiffany will replace former reality TV star Sean Duffy, a Republican who retired in September. The district, which covers all or parts of 26 counties, has been vacant since Duffy’s retirement.

President Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point, but carried the district by 20 points, in 2016. President Trump backed Tiffany in the race, but due to the pandemic was unable to campaign in person for him.

Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board, was trying to become the first Native American from Wisconsin elected to Congress. She would have also been the first woman to represent the district, which stretches from Wausau in the south up to Lake Superior and includes popular tourist destinations like Bayfield and Madeline Island.

Zunker pulled in big-name endorsements including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but the numbers were against her. The district has been under Republican control since 2011 and was redistricted to more heavily favor Republicans.

There was uncertainty over whether holding a special election in the middle of the pandemic would affect the outcome. Election clerks said they were prepared, about 20% of registered voters had voted absentee, and there were no calls to delay or alter the election like there were before Wisconsin’s presidential primary last month.

Unlike Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary, during which mask-wearing voters endured long lines at congested polling sites in Milwaukee and elsewhere, there were no widespread calls to delay or alter voting in the special election. The 18,800-square-mile district is mostly rural and hasn’t yet been badly hit by COVID-19, with less than 2% of all positive cases in the state and less than 2.5% of all deaths.

Shery Weinkauf, clerk for the village of Weston, said voters felt safe in April and the same safeguards were in place for Tuesday’s election. Those include keeping voters 6 feet apart, offering hand sanitizer and requiring poll workers to wear masks.

“I feel much more comfortable moving forward with this election than I did with the last election, because during the last election there were so many unknowns,” Weinkauf said.

Mary Thompson, 64, of Kronenwetter, a village in Marathon County, said she felt safe as she cast her vote for Tiffany on Tuesday, calling herself a “stubborn, very patriotic person.” She said she felt she had to vote in-person to honor ancestors who served in the military.

Dave Murdock, 68, of Wausau, also voted for Tiffany. There was a short line at his polling site with plenty of space between voters.

“It was far safer than going to, for instance, one of the convenience stores,” Murdock said.

Peggy Stalheim, 69, a retired public health nurse in Medford, voted absentee for Zunker. Even though no coronavirus cases had been recorded in her county, Stalheim said she wasn’t going to risk voting in person. Her 92-year-old mother-in-law lives at her house.

“We really didn’t have any other choice,” Stalheim said of voting absentee. “It was a no-brainer.”

Life Duffy, Tiffany, a state lawmaker since 2011, is closely aligned with President Trump.

Tiffany, 62, was born on a dairy farm in the district and ran a tourist boat business for 20 years. Joining the Legislature in 2011, he was a close ally of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker and voted to pass the anti-union law, Act 10. He also voted in favor of legalizing concealed carry and moving the state forestry division to northern Wisconsin and pushed to locate an open-pit mine in northern Wisconsin that ultimately never came to the state.

Tiffany argued that Zunker, who was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin and was endorsed by Planned Parenthood, was too liberal for the district.

With Tiffany’s win, Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in Congress. Tiffany will serve through the end of the year, but will have to run again in November to serve a full two-year term.