Following a controversial April primary marred by the COVID-19 outbreak, officials will hold a special election Tuesday for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, a seat vacant for the past eight months.
After U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin — who held the seat for the past eight years — stepped down in November due to anticipated health complications of his newborn daughter, two candidates have emerged that will vie for the seat that represents 21 counties and portions of five others in northern Wisconsin that Pres. Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Wisconsin State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minoqua, and Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker, a Democrat, both advanced in the Feb. 18 special primary and offer starkly different candidate profiles.
Tiffany, who spent the last decade in the state Legislature, faced criticism early in his tenure by supporting legislation reducing the collective bargaining power of public employees. He also advocated for the relaxation of mining regulations and has fought to curtail the powers of the Department of Natural Resources, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Zunker was elected to the Wausau School Board in 2018 and quickly became president after. A Native American herself, Zunker has been a vocal advocate of Indigenous rights, such as her attempt to ban all Wisconsin schools from using Native American mascots and her membership as an associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court.
She will be the first Native American woman candidate to run for Congress since 1992, when Ada Deer lost her bid to Republican Scott Klug, the Cap Times reported.
The winner of Tuesday’s election, however, will serve a brief term before facing re-election again in November. Zunker indicated she would run for the seat in November, but Tiffany did not comment about his future intentions, the Journal Sentinel said.
Aside from filling a vacant seat, the COVID-19 outbreak adds a unique dynamic to the race.
While the two candidates had relied on door-to-door and physical interactions with constituents to gain their support, both Tiffany and Zunker transitioned their campaigns to utilize virtual elements following the passage of Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer-at-Home order. This includes digital ads, phone calls, emails, text messages and other forms of media to keep voters informed.
Zunker told the Cap Times her campaign has held a Facebook town hall event, roundtable discussions and listening sessions on Zoom to engage with the public. Tiffany said he sent out mailings detailing campaign information and utilized phone messages, WDIO reported.
“There’s just some things you can’t replace, to be able to look people in the eye and have a conversation,” Zunker said. “I prefer campaigning in-person, absolutely. But I am very proud how well we’ve taken on this virtual campaign.”
Similar to last month's primary, more Wisconsinites are opting to vote by mail. Elections officials reported they have received 112,892 absentee-ballot applications, according to fivethirtyeight.
In-person voting centers will be available for constituents, but voters can expect protective barriers and a limit on the number of people allowed in polling places among other social distancing measures. Around 250 members of the Wisconsin National Guard will assist local clerks in administering the election.
As Zunker originally pushed for the election to be by mail, she cautioned voters to exercise safety measures if they chose to vote in-person. Tiffany, who worked as a poll worker in April, believed the lessons learned from the prior election will lead to a smoother process in May.
"While a little chaotic, the local clerks did a terrific job," Tiffany said. "So I think it was a good learning curve with the April 7 election. And now I think May 12, the clerks I talk to, they're ready to go."
The polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.