State Senator Pfaff announces he will not make a second run in Wisconsin’s 3rd congressional district, launches 2024 state senate re-election campaign

Onalaska, WI – The field for Wisconsin’s 3rd congressional district got a little more clear today with State Senator Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) announcing he is seeking re-election in Wisconsin’s 32nd State Senate District. That means Pfaff will not be a candidate for the congressional seat he ran for in 2022 and narrowly lost to Republican Congressman Derrick Van Orden (R-Prairie du Chien). Van Orden won the race in November 2022 to replace Democrat Ron Kind, who retired after 13 terms with 164,743 votes to Pfaff’s 152,977.

“Serving the people of this district is an honor and a privilege and I’m fortunate to be able to fight for our shared values and represent this wonderful place my family calls home,” Pfaff said. “I came to Madison with a willingness to work with anyone, regardless of party, to get things done for the people of Wisconsin.”

Upon learning that Pfaff had decided to stay in the Wisconsin legislature and not run for the congressional seat, some local Democratic leaders viewed it as a positive to have Pfaff solidify his spot in Madison.

“I’m thrilled that Brad Pfaff is running for re-election to the Wisconsin State Senate,” said Vernon County Democratic Party Chair Wayde Lawler. “He has been a strong voice in the legislature and he works incredibly hard on behalf of the people of southwestern Wisconsin. Whether it’s funding our public schools, defending women’s rights, or reducing the cost of healthcare, we can count on Sen. Pfaff to have our backs. We’re excited to work with him during this campaign.”

Pfaff pointed to the potential shift in Wisconsin’s political landscape in the next year as a key factor in his calculation to stay in Madison rather than shoot for a seat in Washington.

“Next year brings the potential for real change coming to Madison and with that change, we must continue to build a better tomorrow for Wisconsin,” said Pfaff. “We can strengthen our economy and invest in family farmers and small businesses. We will fight like hell to restore reproductive freedom for women in our state. We can provide affordable healthcare to more people, and we can help working families and expand our workforce by making childcare more accessible and affordable.”

Pfaff is likely to referring a probable change in Wisconsin election maps with the election of Janet Protasiewicz to the Wisconsin Supreme Court giving the court a liberal majority for the first time in about a decade. That shift in the high court caused a Madison-based law firm focused on voting issues to file a lawsuit earlier this month challenging Wisconsin’s state legislative maps. The firm is arguing the Republican Party “has insulated itself from being answerable to the voters” with the current gerrymander. 

All of that points to the possibility that the Wisconsin legislature could shift to Democratic control if the maps are redrawn, which could elevate Pfaff to leadership role in the Madison in the not too distant future.

“I’ve got deep roots here in western Wisconsin and I work to be a good neighbor. I look forward to continuing to be that good neighbor for the people I represent in the Wisconsin State Senate.”

Rebecca Cooke

Pfaff’s decision does clarify the race for the congressional seat, maybe. With Pfaff out of the race and one of the other leading candidates from the last cycle , Deb McGrath, seeming to indicate she is not running, that may clear the field for Rebecca Cooke who had a strong showing in the primary last time, coming in second to Pfaff and beating McGrath. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that McGrath declined to elaborate on her decision but told the Journal Sentinel: “We have to coalesce, we need to be around a candidate that is going to beat Van Orden. And so I am not going to run this time. I am going to support a candidate who I know can beat Van Orden.”

That seems to indicate there may be an effort by Democrats to focus resources (possibly behind Cooke) instead of splitting resources as they did in the last primary. In the 2022 primary four candidates slugged it out before ever turning their attention to Van Orden, who had already built a substantial war chest by that time. Even after sorting out the field in 2022 Pfaff was never able to catch up to Van Orden in terms of resources, ultimately getting outspent by about a 4-1 margin.

In her announcement that she was running again last month, Cooke said she brings to the campaign experience running her small business, leading a non-profit that helps female entrepreneurs, and serving the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Cooke grew up on a dairy farm near Eau Claire.

But any hope of unifying behind one candidate could come to end quickly with a number of other potential candidates rumored to be considering a run for the congressional seat. Potential candidates include state Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), former La Crosse County Board chair Tara Johnson, and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO Missy Hughes. A law student from Milwaukee has also announced his intention to run, though he does not appear to have any connection to the district.

Derrick Van Orden

The heavily rural western Wisconsin district has trended redder in recent years and is considered to be one of two competitive congressional districts in the state. National Democrats have targeted the state’s 3rd and 1st Districts, held by Van Orden and Republican U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, respectively, as top targets this election cycle. 

Van Orden has faced criticism recently from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for his treatment of Senate Pages while on a late night tour of the Capitol Rotunda. During a break in the Senate duties the pages were lying on the floor of the rotunda, taking pictures of the interior of the dome. A transcript of Van Orden’s tirade was written by one of the pages and published in The Hill:

“Wake the f‑‑‑ up you little s‑‑‑‑. … What the f‑‑‑ are you all doing? Get the f‑‑‑ out of here. You are defiling the space you [pieces of s‑‑‑],” Van Orden said, according to the article. 

When the young volunteers identified themselves as Senate pages, Van Orden reportedly responded. “I don’t give a f‑‑‑ who you are, get out.”

A photo circulated the next day showed several empty bottles of alcohol in Van Orden’s office where a witness reported hearing people “partying loudly.” A spokesperson said Van Orden “regularly hosts beer and cheese tours with constituents” and “hosted roughly 50 constituents and visitors [that day] before a private tour of the Capitol.“

Van Orden has not denied any of the allegations and has pushed back against criticism through interviews on right wing media and through social media with posts like this one.

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