Obey Retirement Moves WI-07 from Likely Democratic to Toss Up

May 5, 2010

Without Appropriations Chair and 20-term Democratic Rep. Dave Obey on the ballot, GOP Ashland County prosecutor Sean Duffy suddenly has a more realistic shot at a seat in Congress than any other reality TV contestant-turned-candidate before him (which, we know, isn’t saying much). In the current political environment, any heavily working-class seat that falls close to the national partisan average (PVI D+3) isn’t the type of open seat Congressional Democrats want to defend. President Bush came within one percent of carrying this seat in 2004.

You can’t blame Obey for admitting he’s “worn out” from Congress. Yet Obey’s retirement isn’t likely to trigger a logjam of Democrats headed for the exits, as most filing deadlines have now passed. Instead, Obey’s announcement may trigger a logjam of Democratic hopefuls for his seat. After all, the nomination hasn’t been up for grabs since 1969. And as Democrats eye a mid-September primary, Duffy is sitting on plenty of money he raised in part because his bid against the Appropriations Chair has garnered plenty of national conservative interest.

This district becomes the 13th marginal open seat Democrats will have to defend. And it’s by no means the most perilous. Even though this district is 95 percent white, it has a strong progressive tradition dating back nearly a century, and Duffy can’t simply expect to win by running as a standard-issue conservative Republican. Democrats will have plenty of ammo against Duffy and will try to portray him as too flashy and attention-seeking for a humble Wisconsin north woods electorate. Indeed, Duffy may be more personally relevant in a campaign against a Democrat who lives and works in Wisconsin rather than the House’s most powerful committee chair.

Still, the current enthusiasm gap between the parties and the competitiveness of this district at the national level warrant moving WI-07 from the Likely Democratic column to the Toss Up column. The most important district to watch over the next month continues to be PA-12, where the May 18th special election will tell us something about voter intensity and attitudes in blue-collar areas Democrats have represented for a long time.

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