MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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.
Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point, but carried the district by 20 points, in 2016. Tiffany's win over Zunker was about 5 points less than that, based on preliminary results. Trump backed Tiffany in the race but due to the pandemic was unable to campaign in person for him.
The win is in a district that Trump will need to once again win big if he hopes to again carry Wisconsin, a state he won by less than a point in 2016. Tiffany's big win also helps to erase the taste of a loss by a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in last month's election, a race that boosted Democrats' confidence.
"Tonight was a win for President Trump and Tom Tiffany that demonstrates the enthusiasm behind our president across Wisconsin," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Anna Kelly.
Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board, was trying to become the first Native American from Wisconsin elected to Congress. She 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.
"This isn't the result we were hoping for but we did something incredible here. We did something that no one thought a Democrat in this district could do, in spite of a global pandemic," Zunker said in a video message posted to her campaign's Facebook page on Tuesday night.
"This has been quite a journey and we worked really hard. And we laid the ground work for a Democratic win in November," Zunker said.
Zunker said she will run again in November.
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.
Bawaajigekwe Andrea Boulley, Bad River Ojibwe, told Indian Country Today she voted in person Tuesday and monitored the lines of the polling location from her home office because she lives across the street. Safety is important to her because she has a daughter who is immunocompromised.
Boulley is one of Wiconsin’s 2020 Teachers of the Year. She is also a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.
Boulley said that when she went to the polls around 5 p.m. local time, there was one person in line ahead of her. Everyone inside was wearing masks and gloves.
Other safety precautions included one-time use pens supplied by poll workers. She says they gave her the option of keeping her pen or putting it in a bin where it would be sanitized.
Despite all of these precautions, Boulley said she needed to vote because “in these small, special elections, every vote really does count.”
“I am a Native woman who looks at the candidates running for this seat. I see their record and backgrounds. Then I see Tricia,” Boulley said. “As an Indigenous woman and educator, it is great to see her name there. I will definitely say I voted for her.”
Twenty-three miles north, Marine Corps veteran Roland Lemiex, Bad River Ojibwe, voted in person for Zunker too.
He reports the process was quick, and he was the only voter there.
“I went around noon,” Lemiex said. “They told me I was voter 143 today. … I think a lot more people voted absentee this year.”
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.
"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.
Misty Jackson, Bad River Ojibwe, also voted absentee for Zunker.
“I vote blue, but I also think she is an intelligent, professional person whose values mirror my own,” said Jackson, an Army veteran who attends the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
She says she has voted through an absentee ballot for many years because there are many perks to it.
One reason is that during this time, it takes the stress out of risking her health to vote. For this reason, she also got her family members to vote absentee in this special election too.
Jackson says voting absentee means she doesn’t have to rush to get off work or wait in lines. It also gives her the opportunity to research candidates, she said.
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.
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.
Indian Country Today reporter Aliyah Chavez in Phoenix and AP writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.