Obey Faces First Competitive Race in Years

April 1, 2010

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the hard-driving chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has scarcely faced serious Republican opposition during a House career that has spanned more than 40 years.

But there is evidence that suggests Obey will get a credible GOP challenge this year in his northwestern 7th district — from Sean Duffy, a young county prosecutor whose candidacy has prompted CQ Politics to shift the rating of the Wisconsin 7 race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The new rating still gives Obey a decisive edge in his campaign to win a 21st full term, but suggests that an upset cannot be ruled out and that the race has the potential to become highly competitive.

Several factors prompt the ratings change, including a challenging political environment for Democrats at the midpoint of President Barack Obama ’s first term – and perhaps even more so for longtime incumbents who face credible GOP opponents.

Obey has won at least 60 percent of the vote in all but two of his 20 re-election campaigns, in 1994 and 1996. He won 62 percent of the vote in 2006 and 61 percent in 2008 against little-known Republican opposition.

The latter two race showings came in strong Democratic years, and so Duffy would enter the general election with a floor of about 40 percent of the vote.

There’s evidence that Duffy will exceed that total. Through the end of last year, Duffy raised $286,000 — or more than 2006 GOP nominee Nick Reid spent on his entire campaign and more than three times as much as 2008 GOP nominee Dan Mielke spent on his effort. Updated campaign reports, covering the first three months of this year, are due to the Federal Election Commission by April 15.

Mielke is running again, though Duffy will have the edge in the September primary. The National Republican Congressional Committee thinks highly enough of Duffy’s campaign that is has included him as one of 22 “contenders” in its “Young Guns” candidate recruitment program — the second step in a three-level program.

Duffy will need to build his name recognition in a district that, at nearly 19,000 square miles, is by far Wisconsin’s largest. Ashland County, an area in far northern Wisconsin where Duffy has been the top prosecutor since 2002, includes just 2.5 percent of the district’s population.

And Wisconsin’s 7th is not exactly fertile Republican territory: President Obama took 56 percent of the district vote in the 2008 election, and so Duffy will have to demonstrate an ability to win non-Republican votes if he is to full off the big upset.
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