Derrick Van Orden, then a congressional candidate, speaks as former President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wis., on Aug. 5, 2022. (Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

What type of Democrat can win in rural Wisconsin?

by Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch
April 22, 2024

The race to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden in western Wisconsin is on, with three Democratic candidates jostling in a primary that offers voters three distinct paths forward for the general election.

Small-business owner Rebecca Cooke, state Rep. Katrina Shankland and information technology professional Eric Wilson are all running for the Democratic nomination in the 18-county district. Van Orden’s seat is seen by both national and Wisconsin Democrats as a prime flip opportunity to help them win back the U.S. House in November.

Spanning most of western Wisconsin, the district is a mixture of small Democratic-leaning cities — La Crosse, Eau Claire and Stevens Point — and rural Republican communities near the Minnesota border. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report says the race leans Republican, with its Partisan Voter Index indicating the district is slightly more Republican than Democratic.

A vocal critic of President Joe Biden and an ally of former President Donald Trump, Van Orden is a freshman who won his seat in 2022 after longtime Democratic Rep. Ron Kind retired. 

Van Orden has the resources to mount a competitive reelection campaign, though he has attracted negative headlines for his conduct in Washington. For example, he drew bipartisan rebukes after reports surfaced that he yelled and cursed at a group of high school-aged Senate pages. Last week, coming to the defense of House Speaker Mike Johnson on the House floor, Van Orden challenged Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz to file a motion to oust the speaker. Van Orden called Gaetz “tubby” after Gaetz called him a “squish,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Van Orden has sought to appeal to more moderate voters over the past year. For example, after a train derailment in his district last summer, Van Orden introduced legislation that would bolster the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative abilities.

Cooke, Shankland and Wilson all have a similar reason for getting into the race: They say Van Orden has failed the residents of his district and his constituents deserve a representative who can get things done.

But all three present unique political identities to Democratic primary voters — setting the race up to be a litmus test for Wisconsin Democrats outside of Madison and Milwaukee. Which type of Democrat can win outstate is particularly noteworthy with new legislative districts in place and control of the state Senate potentially on the line in 2026.

Rebecca Cooke
Rebecca Cooke (Courtesy of Rebecca Cooke)

Cooke sells herself as a sort of everywoman. She is leaning hard on her background as the child of dairy farmers and a nonprofit founder, as well as her current experience working a blue-collar job as a waitress. She also has a background working as a political fundraiser.

She’s relying on relationships and campaign infrastructure she built during her first campaign — Cooke came in second in the Democratic primary for the seat in 2022 with 31% support — to help power her to a win in August, Cooke said in an interview with Wisconsin Watch.

Spending her time talking about “bread and butter issues” like health care and housing affordability will help her appeal to the moderate and crossover Republican voters needed to win the seat, Cooke said. So far she has a sizable fundraising advantage over Shankland and Wilson. She noted that strong fundraising will be key in defeating Van Orden in November.

“We’re going to need the bank to be able to win,” she said, adding that her fundraising in the primary will help get the attention and financial support of national Democratic groups if she makes it through the primary.

Katrina Shankland
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, is seen during Gov. Tony Evers’ first State of the State address in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 22, 2019. (Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch)

Shankland, who has served in the Assembly since 2013, is campaigning on her legislative experience. It’s a strategy former Rep. Peter Barca also may use as he seeks to challenge U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil in southeast Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, the other seat Democrats are targeting in the state.

In an interview with Wisconsin Watch, Shankland noted that she has worked on more than 200 bills that have become law during her time in office — all while serving in the minority. Her work on agricultural issues — including conservation projects aimed at improving soil quality and protecting water quality — shows she can pass policy important to people living in the 3rd Congressional District, she said.

“We’ve heard this every day on the trail: Voters value and put a premium on candidates with experience,” Shankland said.

The state representative also pointed to February polling her campaign released showing her running the strongest against Van Orden as evidence she’s the right candidate for the job. Cooke pushed back on that claim, noting the small sample size, and said her campaign plans to produce its own polling in the coming months.

Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson (Courtesy of Eric Wilson)

Wilson, who lags significantly behind both Cooke and Shankland in fundraising, said he is the “progressive voice” in the race.

He is also running to do more than just beat Van Orden in the fall, Wilson said. He’s running to talk about “the difficult issues that people want to hear about.”

Those include Medicare for All — a central element to his campaign. Wilson also wants to advocate for “responsible gun ownership” and more affordable housing, he said.

With three distinct approaches to campaigning on the ballot, the Democratic primary — and how the winner fares against Van Orden — could signal to other campaigns how to approach western Wisconsin in future contests.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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