Voters in northern Wisconsin donned masks and minded their personal space on Tuesday in the state’s second pandemic election in little more than a month, a special congressional race being watched for clues about bigger stakes come November.
The election to fill the state’s 7th District seat, pitting a state senator backed by President Donald Trump against a Democrat hoping to become the state’s first Native American in Congress, was a chance to gauge enthusiasm in both parties in a key presidential swing state.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany faced Democrat Tricia Zunker, a tribal justice and school board president in the district’s biggest city. The winner will replace Republican Sean Duffy, a former star on MTV’s “Real World,” who retired to spend more time with family and remains a vocal Trump backer.
Trump carried the deeply conservative district by 20 points four years ago. Tuesday’s race comes just five weeks after a liberal-backed state Supreme Court candidate won a statewide race over a Trump-backed candidate; even though the conservative candidate lost the race, he carried the 7th by six points.
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.
Still, about 250 members of the Wisconsin National Guard were needed to help staff polls due to a shortage of willing workers.
Shery Weinkauf, clerk for the village of Weston, said voters felt safe in April and the same safeguards were in place for Tuesday’s election. Those include keeping voters 6 feet apart, offering hand sanitizer and requiring poll workers to wear masks.
“I feel much more comfortable moving forward with this election than I did with the last election, because during the last election there were so many unknowns,” Weinkauf said.
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. There was a short line at his polling site with plenty of space between voters.
“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.
“We really didn’t have any other choice,” Stalheim said of voting absentee. “It was a no-brainer.”
Absentee voting was strong Tuesday, though not at the level of April’s statewide election. In that one, about 34% of registered voters statewide cast ballots absentee. As of Tuesday, just 20% of registered voters in the 7th had returned an absentee ballot.
Tiffany had Trump’s endorsement but the pandemic prevented the president from campaigning in the district. Zunker, an attorney, was endorsed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a host of liberal groups, including EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood.
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 Republican Gov. Scott Walker and voted to pass Act 10, the law that all but ended the union rights of most public employees. He also voted to legalize concealed carry and pushed to locate an open pit mine in northern Wisconsin that ultimately never came to the state.
Zunker, 39, is a justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and a professor at three colleges. She’s on leave from the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
With less money and name recognition than Tiffany, Zunker focused on voter-rich Wausau, where she was raised and still lives. That’s at the southern edge of a district larger than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
The winner will have to stand for election again in November to serve a full two-year term.