In her bid for the seat of soon-to-be-retired representative Dave Obey (D., Wis.), Democratic state senator Julie Lassa is running a campaign based on “Wisconsin common sense.” In a year like this, with voter dissatisfaction with Congress in general and Democrats in particular approaching record levels, common sense means distancing herself as much as possible from the man she hopes to succeed.
Lassa has made fiscal responsibility a cornerstone of her campaign, proposing to cut federal lawmakers’ pay by 10 percent until the national unemployment rate goes down and saying that, if elected, she will refuse a pay raise until the federal budget is balanced.
She has assumed a centrist and at times conservative stance on federal spending, pledging “no big earmarks or no big contracts.” She has called the use of carbon taxes and emission caps “too harsh” on businesses, preferring government action through tax incentives. Her expressed concern over tax increases will make voters curious about whether she would vote to extend the Bush tax cuts, but in a wide-ranging interview with the Wausau Daily Herald, she declined to say.
In her first television ad, released in August, Lassa promised to bring some old-fashioned money smarts (and a healthy dose of bovine wordplay) to Capitol Hill. “Growing up on a dairy farm, my dad taught me not to take any bull, and how to milk a dollar for all it’s worth, two skills they could really use in Washington,” Lassa says.
It’s almost as if she’s running against Dave Obey.
Obey, an unabashed old-school liberal and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, secured hundreds of millions in federal earmarks for his district and state. Citizens Against Government Waste gives Obey, who was a primary author of President Obama’s stimulus plan, a lifetime rating of 19 percent, or “hostile,” according to the group’s media director, Leslie Page. “He has shown that he doesn’t trust the American people with their own money, that he’d rather have it in the hands of Washington,” Page says.
The GOP would like nothing more than to put a Republican in Obey’s seat. “The symbolic significance is obvious; it certainly would signal a tectonic shift in the landscape if Republicans were able to pick up that seat,” says Kenneth R. Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
In a normal election year, Lassa might feel pretty confident — WI-7 hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1984. But not this year. Presumed GOP nominee Sean Duffy,who is taking an even tougher line on the economy, looks like the clear favorite. A We Ask America poll released in August showed Duffy leading Lassa 42 percent to 33 percent.
Duffy, a former district attorney (and a former cast member on MTV’s The Real World), is backed by Sarah Palin, an endorsement that has earned him the moniker “Papa Grizzly.” Most people had written him off as a novelty candidate until Obey unexpectedly announced his retirement in May. Wisconsin GOP officials were so stunned by the news that some thought it was a prank. “He went from long shot to contender in the space of about an hour,” Mayer says.
Democrats are just as eager to retain Obey’s seat, and have already begun to inject money into the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first independent-expenditure television spot was an attack ad against Duffy.
Lassa realizes that her best chance of winning is to run on a largely anti-Democratic platform when it come to matters of financial prudence, a dynamic that is playing out in a number of hotly contested races throughout the country.
“The spending message, the idea that you can bring earmarks back to your state, just isn’t resonating this year,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Julie Lassa hopes that her message — out with the pork (and in with the dairy) — will be one that resonates.
– Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.