MADISON, Wis. — The Republican primary race in a special election to fill northern Wisconsin’s open congressional seat pits a political veteran with deep roots in the sprawling district against a war veteran half his age with fewer ties to the area.
There are few major policy differences between the Republicans seeking to replace retired U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District — they both pledge allegiance to President Donald Trump — so there is an even greater emphasis on their vastly different life stories.
Tom Tiffany, who has been in the state Legislature for 10 years, faces retired Army Capt. Jason Church in the Feb. 18 primary. On the Democratic side, Wausau school board president Tricia Zunker, a justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, is trying to become the first Native American elected to Congress from Wisconsin. She faces a nominal challenge from Lawrence Dale, who has shown few signs of campaigning.
The primary winners will advance to face each other in the May 12 special election. Whoever prevails will serve out the remainder of the year and will have to run again in November for a full two-year term.
Given the strong Republican tilt to the district — Trump won it by 20 percentage points in 2016 — much of the focus and spending on the race has been on the GOP side. The seat represents all or parts of 20 northern and northwestern Wisconsin counties and is the state’s largest congressional district, geographically.
Tiffany, 62, was born on a dairy farm in the district, ran a tourist boat business on the Willow Flowage for 20 years and still works as a dam tender. He plays up those deep ties to Wisconsin’s north woods in folksy television ads, including one where he slings cow manure.
Tiffany argues that a life spent in the district and his past decade in the Legislature give him an advantage in the race. He was a close ally of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker and voted to pass the anti-union law, Act 10, in 2011. He also voted in favor of legalizing concealed carry. Walker and Duffy have endorsed Tiffany.
“Madison didn’t change me,” Tiffany said. “I helped change Madison. And I will do the same thing in Washington, D.C.”
Church, 30, has fewer district ties but a more dramatic life story. He was born in Menomonie, outside of the district, and currently lives in Hudson. In 2012, while serving with the Army in Afghanistan, both of his legs were blown off below the knees by a roadside bomb. He tells the story often when making his case to voters.
“Even though the Taliban took my legs, America’s enemies didn’t extinguish my desire to serve,” Church said.
After returning from Afghanistan, Church got his law degree and worked for the past six years as the northwest regional director for Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate. Church pledged that if elected, he would serve no more than four terms, or eight years.
“I’m an outsider,” Church said. “I’m not someone who’s been in politics. I’ve not run for political office before. I think we need a new, fresh perspective and one that is different from someone who has simply been trying to move up the ladder and obtain new political office.”
Church’s biggest endorsements come from members of Congress who are fellow veterans — U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, and Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and Reps. Dan Crenshaw, of Texas, and Brian Mast, of Florida.
Both Tiffany and Church have been lock-step in support of Trump and against impeachment, but Church has tried to ding Tiffany for first supporting Walker in the 2016 presidential race. Tiffany then endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before backing Trump in the general election. Many other Wisconsin Republicans, including Duffy, did not start out backing Trump.
Tiffany became more vocal about his support for Trump after he launched his congressional campaign, a move that Church derided as “politically expedient.” Church said he supported Trump “from the moment he came down the escalator,” but had no evidence to back it up. Church, unlike Tiffany, was not a public figure during the 2016 campaign.
Tiffany received an A+ rating and full endorsement from the NRA, while Church received the highest rating the gun rights group gives to a candidate without a voting record. Wisconsin Right to Life, which opposes abortion rights, endorsed both candidates, though it qualified its support for Church because he supports exceptions for abortions involving rape and incest.
Tiffany had out-raised Church $719,000 to $658,000 through Jan. 29, but independent groups have been spending heavily on the race as well. Church had a slight advantage there, with groups backing him spending $640,000 as of Friday compared with $558,000 for Tiffany, according to the Political Moneyline website that tracks outside spending on races.
The two biggest spenders for Church are the bipartisan With Honor Fund, which is supported primarily by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and backs veterans running for office, and the newly formed Americans for Security PAC.
Tiffany’s biggest backers are Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, and the House Freedom SuperPac, a group formed by some of the most conservative members of Congress. He also has the backing of the Club for Growth and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which announced a six-figure ad buy that wasn’t yet part of the Political Moneyline’s totals.
On the Democratic side, Zunker has raised $145,000 while Dale has not reported any donations.