LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) – Derrick Van Orden was among thousands of people who went to Washington for the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally led by then-President Donald Trump. Afterwards, Van Orden was photographed on or near the grounds of the US Capitol, where rioters stormed the building in one of the darkest days of American democracy.
Now Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL endorsed by Donald Trump who says he did not participate in the riots or set foot on the Capitol grounds, appears poised to win the US House seat held since 1997 by retired Democratic Rep. Ron Kind. Voters in a southwestern Wisconsin district say they are more concerned about everyday economic issues than what happened on Jan. 6.
“He shouldn’t have been there. Don’t get me wrong,” said Rosemary Hermanson, a 60-year-old political independent from Black River Falls. “I’m just making sure I’m fed and making sure I have gas to get to my cancer treatments.”
It’s a challenge for Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff, who is fighting in the final weeks of the Nov. 8 election to raise awareness and raise money, trying to make Van Orden’s attendance on Jan. 6 a disqualification from running for office. The stakes are high as Pfaff’s party seeks to halt the slide in this once-democratic part of the country.
“I think that’s the No. 1 question. It’s the fundamental question of this race,” Pfaff said in an interview. “Jan. 6 opened a window into his soul. And what we saw there is that we saw something that is unfortunately very dark.”
Pfaff admits he’s trailing the Republican, who has a big fundraising lead.
Van Orden’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview with The Associated Press.
Some voters in the 3rd Congressional District, a sprawling landscape of dairy farms, small manufacturing centers and college towns, have strongly negative views of what happened on Jan. 6. But that doesn’t mean they blame Van Orden.
Hermanson said she has not seen Pfaff’s ads on the issue. Neither is Beth Hammond, a 49-year-old Republican from nearby Taylor, who said the economy, followed by gun rights, tops her list of concerns.
“Even if I had seen his commercials, it wouldn’t have mattered to me,” she said. “It was not a good thing. But that is not what is at the heart of people’s lives now.”
Even Susan Burlingame, a Democrat from Black River Falls who will vote against Van Orden, said it wasn’t because of the riots.
“I’m afraid they’re going to cut Social Security,” said Burlingame, 80. “The rest of the stuff is just noise.”
Their ambivalence about Pfaff’s key strategy is noteworthy, given that all three are from Jackson County, the most narrowly divided of the 18 in the district. It’s territory that Democrat Barack Obama won twice in his races for the White House, but has grown more conservative as rural areas generally have. Trump carried the district in 2016 and 2020.
Perhaps aware of the change, Kind decided not to seek a 14th term after defeating Van Orden by less than 3 percentage points two years ago.
The county stretches from the north of the university town of Menomonie in the northwest down the bluff of the Mississippi River and the rolling hills of the no-sediment scenic area and includes Chippewa Falls, home of Leinenkugel beer. From the Illinois border, it stretches 250 miles north past Prairie du Chien, home of Van Orden, known for its Cabela’s outdoor gear distribution center and historic 19th-century riverfront sites.
Pfaff, a former U.S. agriculture secretary appointee and former secretary of state for agriculture, said Van Orden’s presence at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, held just before a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, suggests he would have a hard time building relationships in Congress. .
“How is he going to do any of this when his character and judgment are what they are?” said Pfaff, 54, who is from La Crosse.
Van Orden, 53, said he was in Washington for political meetings when he decided to attend the rally near the White House. He says he did not march on the Capitol and condemned the violence.
A Facebook photo from that day appears to show Van Orden posing with a small handful of protesters on the Capitol grounds. Van Orden said the suggestion he was in a restricted area was “false”.
Pfaff and his Democratic allies are trying to make a late push.
Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, from a neighboring Democratic-dominated district that includes Madison, campaigned this month with Pfaff on the district’s five smaller University of Wisconsin system campuses. The hope was to rally supporters in small Democratic-leaning towns from Platteville in the south to Menomonie in the north.
Pocan is concerned that national Democrats have so far not committed to delaying money in the race and will reconsider.
By early summer, Van Orden had raised more than six times as much as Pfaff. Pfaff was expected to raise just over $700,000 in the third quarter, which would surely put him behind Van Orden in the millions of total money raised. Outside conservative groups were expected to spend more than $1 million on Van Orden in the final weeks, while an independent group pledged to spend roughly $500,000 on an ad denouncing him.
The House Democrats’ Super Political Action Committee has reserved $1.68 million in advertising time for Pfaff, but may decide to shift that elsewhere.
GOP congressional strategists said the uncertainty surrounding Pfaff’s money is telling.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.