MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Derrick Van Orden was leading the race for a western-central Wisconsin congressional seat early Wednesday, against state Sen. and Democrat Brad Pfaff. Van Orden led Pfaff by about 4 percentage points with about 75% of the vote counted.
Van Orden is among a handful of people who were in Washington the day of the Jan. 6 insurrection and are now running for Congress. The former Navy SEAL, who refused to debate Pfaff, has denied taking any part. Pfaff, however, has argued to voters that his presence should be disqualifying.
The two were seeking a seat held by longtime Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, who narrowly defeated Van Orden in 2020, and chose not to seek another term after 26 years in the US House.
Van Orden vastly outraised Pfaff with a lot of outside money, amassing nearly $6 million, compared to Pfaff’s $1.4. Van Orden also had the advantage of running in a district that has been trending conservative.
But he has been called out about his presence on or near the U.S. Capitol grounds during the insurrection, when rioters violently breached the building in an attempt to block certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
Van Orden has said he was in Washington for political meetings when he attended then-President Donald Trump’s rally outside the White House shortly before the Capitol attack.
A Facebook photo from that day appears to show Van Orden posing with a small handful of protesters on the Capitol grounds, but Van Orden has said the suggestion he was within the restricted area is “inaccurate.”
Pfaff, a state senator and former agricultural cabinet secretary for Gov. Tony Evers, maintained Van Orden’s presence near the Capitol that day shows he lacks the character and judgment to be an effective member of Congress.
He also criticized Van Orden for saying during a campaign stop in October that “leftists” can’t be Christians, in a recording that was sent to the Democrat’s campaign.
Van Orden called during the stop in Sparta for a return to Judeo-Christian values that he said “this country was based on” and mentioned that he’s a member of the Bible Baptist Church, which lists homosexuality alongside bestiality and incest as “sinful perversion.” The church also preaches that women should be barred from leadership positions.
The 3rd District stretches from Menomonie south along the Mississippi River through La Crosse and onto Platteville and then reaches over and grabs Stevens Point.
Democrat Barack Obama won the district twice in his presidential races but the district has grown more conservative since then, mirroring a nationwide trend in rural areas. Trump carried the district in 2016 and 2020. Kind beat Van Orden by less than 3 points in 2020.
Incumbents in Wisconsin’s other seven congressional districts were heavily favored to retain their seats.