Obey’s Once-Safe Dem Seat Could Be Up For Grabs This Fall

So how competitive will the race be for Democratic Rep. David Obey’s northern Wisconsin House seat, now that the 41-year incumbent is retiring? Both parties argue that the district is looking to go their way — with the truth appearing to perhaps put the race as more of a toss up.

The district voted 56%-42% for Barack Obama in 2008, but was much closer in the previous elections, with John Kerry and Al Gore carrying it by only a one-point margin each time. Obey himself has consistently won with over 60% of the vote, but an open-seat race is obviously a different affair, with the district’s general partisan leanings becoming an important indicator.

For some neutral analysis, we turned to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Charles Franklin — who, as luck would have it, was basing an elections class of his for the last few weeks around a comprehensive look at data from Obey’s district.“It’s a lean Dem district. It’s not overwhelmingly Dem, but has been a little more Democratic than the state as a whole,” Franklin explained, saying that there has been little change to its slight Democratic lean over at least the past decade. As an example, in the 2006 state attorney general’s race the Republican candidate won statewide with just a little over 50% of the vote, while at the same time the Democratic candidate carried the district with about 51% of the vote.

“It was a little more Democratic than the state as a whole. But Obey’s huge success for such a long time might lead you to think it’s a strong Democratic district. It’s a moderate Democratic district,” said Franklin.

As a bottom line judgment, Franklin deemed the race to be a toss-up for now, reserving the possibility of it perhaps becoming leans-Democratic if the party is able to recruit a strong candidate.

Overall, Franklin did not think Obey was in serious danger of losing re-election, unless 2010 turned out to be a GOP wave year that displaced even popular and well-established Democratic incumbents across the country. Instead, he suspects that Obey might have had to work hard for re-election, due to that national tide, and might have only been rewarded with serving in the House but with a GOP majority. Franklin also said the district is definitely less safe for Democrats with Obey retiring: “This was no ‘Chris Dodd’ case where the party was better off without him on the ballot.”

Wisconsin GOP communications director Kristin Ruesch played up the GOP’s chances in the district: “The numbers are coming our way. While you’ve got a couple bad years for us, ’06 and ’08, if you look at the overall trend, especially if you look at the population centers in Wausau, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids, it’s coming our way. And especially in a favorable atmosphere for the GOP, in an open seat we’re going to have a lot of attention coming to this district.”

Ruesch also played up the merits of likely GOP nominee Sean Duffy, the Ashland County district attorney and former star of MTV’s reality show The Real World, who had been running against Obey for some time and now has a head start on the Democrats. “We’ve never had a high profile candidate who’s been up to the challenge of raising money and having a positive message about jobs and getting our economy on track and reining in federal spending,” said Ruesch. “We have a great candidate. And in an open seat, it’s going to be a good year for the GOP there.”

We asked state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate what the chances were of keeping the district. “Well, I think it’s extremely high,” said Tate. “This is a solidly Democratic district There hasn’t been a statewide Democrat running in 10 years that hasn’t carried the 7th Congressional District.”

What Tate meant here is that in all statewide races over the past decade for president, Senate, governor and other statewide offices, the Republican candidates have never carried the district over the past decade. In addition, Democrats hold most of the state legislative seats in the area — and several of those legislators are on the party’s bench of possible candidates for the race.

Tate also took a shot at the much-touted Republican candidate Sean Duffy: “I don’t think they have a strong candidate. They have a guy that has prosecuted traffic tickets as a D.A., and is most well known for getting drunk and having sex on television.”