LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Derrick Van Orden was among the thousands of people who went to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally headlined by then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. Afterward, Van Orden was photographed on or near the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, where rioters violently breached the building in one of American democracy’s darkest days.
Now Van Orden, a Donald Trump-endorsed retired Navy SEAL who says he took no part in the riot and did not set foot on the Capitol grounds, appears poised to win the U.S. House seat held since 1997 by retiring Democratic Rep. Ron Kind. Voters in the southwestern Wisconsin district say they are more concerned about daily economic issues than what happened on Jan. 6.
“He shouldn’t have been there. Don’t get me wrong,” said Rosemary Hermanson, a 60-year-old political independent from Black River Falls. “I’m just worried about feeding myself and making sure I’ve got gas to get to my cancer treatments.”
That’s the challenge for Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff as he scrambles in the final weeks of the Nov. 8 election to sound the alarm and raise money, trying to make Van Orden’s attendance on Jan. 6 a disqualifier for holding elective office. The stakes are high as Pfaff’s party seek to stop the slide in this once-Democratic leaning part of the country.
“I think it’s the No. 1 issue. It’s the underlying issue of this race,” Pfaff said in an interview. “Jan. 6 opened up the window into his soul. And what we saw there, is we saw something that is unfortunately very dark.”
Pfaff acknowledges he is trailing the Republican, who has a vast fundraising edge.
Van Orden’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview with The Associated Press.
Some voters in the 3rd Congressional District, a sprawling landscape of dairy farms, small manufacturing hubs and college towns, have sharply negative views of what happened Jan. 6. But that doesn’t mean they blame Van Orden.
Hermanson said she had not seen Pfaff’s ads on the issue. Nor had Beth Hammond, a 49-year-old Republican from nearby Taylor who said the economy, followed closely by gun rights, top her list of concerns.
“Even if I’d seen his ads, it wouldn’t matter to me,” she said. “It wasn’t a good thing. But it’s not what’s at the heart of peoples’ lives now.”
Even Susan Burlingame, a Democrat in Black River Falls who will be voting against Van Orden, said it wasn’t because of the riot.
“I’m afraid he’s going to cut Social Security,” said Burlingame, 80. “The other stuff is just noise.”
Their ambivalence about Pfaff’s key strategy is noteworthy, considering all three are from Jackson County, the most closely divided among the 18 in the district. It’s territory that Democrat Barack Obama won twice in his White House races, but has become more conservative as rural areas generally have done so. Trump carried the district in 2016 and 2020.
Perhaps mindful of the shift, Kind chose not to run for a 14th term after beating Van Orden by less than 3 percentage points two years ago.
The district runs from north of the university town of Menomonie in the northwest down through the Mississippi River bluffs and rolling hills of the picturesque Driftless Area and includes Chippewa Falls, home of Leinenkugel beer. From the Illinois border, it stretches 250 miles north past Prairie du Chien, Van Orden’s home, known for its Cabela’s outdoor gear distribution center and 19th century riverside historic sites.
Pfaff, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture appointee and past state secretary of agriculture, says Van Orden’s presence at Trump’s rally, on Jan. 6, held shortly before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, suggests he would have a hard time building relationships in Congress.
“How is he going to do any of this when his character and judgment is the way it is?” said Pfaff, 54, who’s from La Crosse.
Van Orden, 53, has said he was in Washington for political meetings when he decided to attend the rally near the White House. He says he did not march to the Capitol and he condemned the violence.
A Facebook photo from that day appears to show Van Orden posing with a small handful of protesters on the Capitol grounds. Van Orden has said the suggestion he was within the restricted area is “inaccurate.”
Pfaff and his Democratic allies are trying to make a late push.
Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, from the neighboring district that includes Democratic-dominated Madison, campaigned this month with Pfaff on the five smaller University of Wisconsin system campuses in the district. The hope was to scoop up supporters in the small Democratic-leaning cities from Platteville in the south to Menomonie in the north.
Pocan fretted that national Democrats have so far failed to commit to pouring late money into the race and would reconsider.
Van Orden had raised more than six times as much as Pfaff through early summer. Pfaff was expected to have raised a little more than $700,000 in the third quarter, still certain to leave him trailing Van Orden by millions in overall money raised. Outside conservative groups were expected to spend more than $1 million for Van Orden in the final weeks, while an independent group had committed to spending roughly $500,000 on an ad condemning him.
The House Democrats’ super political action committee has reserved $1.68 million in advertising time for Pfaff, but could choose to shift that elsewhere.
GOP congressional strategists said the uncertainty over Pfaff’s money was telling.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.