Surprising Battle Rages for Wisconsin House Seat

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One of the best congressional races in the country is in Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Green Bay all the way to the border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It should be a solidly Republican seat. But this election, it has turned into a tight race.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Bush administration is adjusting its strategy for securing Iraq, but the progress of the war may also depend on what's happening in northeastern Wisconsin. That's where voters are making one of many choices that could decide control of Congress this fall. Iraq is among the issues that matter most.

NPR's Don Gonyea left his usual beat at the White House to visit Wisconsin. Don, where were you, exactly?

DON GONYEA: Well, I went to the 8th Congressional District in Wisconsin. Basically, it's Green Bay right on up all the way up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the border there. Wisconsin, Steve, is a swing state. John Kerry won there, but by something like 11,000 votes out of 3 million cast. It was razor thin, but this district is real Republican red Wisconsin.

There is no incumbent in the congressional race there. That's what we went to look at, this race. But in the last go-round, the Republican got 70 percent of the vote. All of a sudden this year, though, it is a real dogfight there.

INSKEEP: What's this area like?

GONYEA: Green Bay, of course, home of the Packers, the big city. It's mostly rural. There's the Oneida Nation Indian Reservation. I can tell you, winter comes very early up there. When I arrived there were snow flurries in the air already. It was very cold. But in one of those odd juxtapositions, when I headed into the conference center for the debate between these two congressional candidates, the very first thing I heard as I walked in the door was surf music, surf guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: So the band consisted of three middle-aged guys from the Oneida Nation. It was 10:30 in the morning, they had it cranked up, and they were playing for people showing up early for the debate. Now the debate itself covered Native American issues as well as a range of local and state topics, and it covered the war in Iraq.

Forty-three year old John Gard is the Republican candidate. He is a long-time state lawmaker. He is the current speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly. On the subject of Iraq, Gard's language is almost word-for-word the president's.

Mr. JOHN GARD (Republican Candidate for Congress, Wisconsin): I do not believe we should cut and run in Iraq, because I think victory is the option that makes you, your kids and our nation safer.

GONYEA: His opponent, the Democrat, is a political newcomer by the name of Dr. Steven Kagen. He is a 56-year-old allergist.

Dr. STEVEN KAGEN (Democratic Candidate for Congress, Wisconsin): We must be smart in going after the terrorists wherever they are. I believe President Bush has the tough part right. Now we've got to get smart in how we take this to a conclusion.

GONYEA: So this race, in what should be a reliably Republican district, has been labeled just too close to call by all the pollsters. Gard, the Republican, argues that Iraq is not the reason for the tightness of the contest, and he insists that the race will be decided on local issues. But when you ask him about the low scores that the public gives the president, including the public in Wisconsin, Gard does say this:

Mr. GARD: You know, I've run in a lot of elections. You've got to earn it every day. Thankfully, President Bush isn't running for Congress in this district, Dr. Kagen and I are. And that's what the choice is.

GONYEA: From Green Bay, I then drove down to Appleton. It's about 45 minutes to the southwest. And Appleton is famous as the home of magician Harry Houdini. It is also the home of the late senator and communist hunter, Joseph McCarthy.

Appleton is where I met Bruce Chudacoff. He is an attorney and a local Republican activist, including a stint as the county Republican Party chairman. This year, though, Chudacoff is voting for the Democrat Steve Kagen. When you ask him why, he points to what he calls untrue, negative ads that Gard has been running about Kagen. But then if you talk to Chudacoff a bit - again, this is a man who says he once proudly greeted President Bush in an arrival ceremony at the local airport - it doesn't take long to tap into a really deep sense of discontent, much of it about the president's Iraq war policy.

Mr. BRUCE CHUDACOFF (Attorney; Republican Activist, Appleton, Wisconsin): The president just isn't leading us. He hasn't given us a vision of what we should be doing. And so I think people are looking at that and they're looking at all of the appointments he's made and deciding he just isn't capable of leading us. And I think that's the frightening thing to a lot of Republicans.

GONYEA: And it's that kind of talk from a Republican that worries GOP candidates this year. So the next day, back in Green Bay, I hit the morning rush hour at the Golden Basket Restaurant. It's a place not too far from Lambeau Field, where the Packers play football. Bonnie Leroy has worked here for 17 years.

Ms. BONNIE LEROY (Waitress/Resident): Well, we have eggs, meat, potatoes, toast, for 2.99. Then we also have other specials like Mexican omelet and pancakes.

GONYEA: Leroy says candidates come in here a lot. They shake hands at election time. In fact, she fondly remembers the time in 2004, when Vice President Dick Cheney - complete with his Secret Service protection - stopped by.

Ms. LEROY: He brought his own food in, you know. He wouldn't eat the food that's here for safety reasons. It was for his own protection. Right! Right.

GONYEA: Now, Tuesday morning, I found friends Edward Upstone and Dave Verts(ph). They were finishing off their coffee before starting their workday. Upstone is a stocky guy. He's a 57-year-old salesman. He was wearing a Green Bay Packers jacket. He is a loyal Republican and says he's voting for John Gard. He also strongly supports the president and the war.

Now, Upstone says a new film he's seen about World War II actually gave him some perspective on Iraq.

Mr. EDWARD UPSTONE (Resident): I saw the movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

GONYEA: Yeah. I haven't seen it yet.

Mr. UPSTONE: I mean, if you look at how many people were killed in one day over there, in a war like that. I mean when you're looking at 2800 that's bad, yes. Nobody likes to see anybody get killed. But I think when you're looking at it over - I don't know how many years it's been there now - three.

GONYEA: Yeah, three and a half.

Mr. UPSTONE: Three and a half years. I think they're doing the best they can in the situation that they're in.

GONYEA: Dave Verts is also a salesman and he sits there and listens, as his friend talks. But then he says he has a different opinion. He is an Independent. He voted for President Bush. But this 43-year-old says that this time around, he's going with the Democrat for Congress. He says he's worried about the economy and about Iraq.

Mr. DAVE VERTS (Resident): I think a lot of people are just dissatisfied with Bush and the way the Republicans been kind of doing some things, that I think people are looking for a change. And, you know, Ed mentioned new faces and that's why it's probably going to be a toss up and all this stuff. But I think a lot of people are leaning - new faces, new people, new ideas, you know. And to me that's what it's all about: new ideas and leading things in a different direction.

GONYEA: And when you ask him if he thinks it's important that Democrats win control of the U.S. House, he shakes his head and says he doesn't really think of it that way.

Mr. VERTS: It doesn't really matter to me. I'd like to see them - both parties - whether they can get the job done and work together. To me, that's the big thing; if they all can work together and not fight their Republican or Democratic, you know...

GONYEA: Any thoughts on the prospects of that happening?

Mr. VERTS: It probably will never happen. It's a nice dream, but I don't know if that will ever happen.

GONYEA: Again, Steve, there was a lot of discontent out there because of Iraq. But, again, it is a Republican district so all we can say right now is the race is very, very close.

INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. And Don, what is President Bush saying about public opinion of the war?

GONYEA: Well, he held a news conference yesterday in the East Room. And he said he knows Americans are satisfied with the situation in Iraq. He went on to say - this is a quote - "But we cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in the war."

So he's - he knows how much Iraq is hurting Republicans this year. He knows that the White House policy just can't seem like it's static. They've stopped using that term, stay the course. So they're trying to put in a big, broad context to try to deal with that.

INSKEEP: So, if you know that you're a president with low approval ratings, how do you spend the last few days before an election like this?

GONYEA: The president ended that news conference yesterday by saying, see you on the campaign trail. We will. He's going to be out all over the place, especially in districts where you've got a Republican in a race that should be a Republican win, but is not guaranteed and is very close even this year.

INSKEEP: Okay. Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. And we'll be listening for his coverage and the coverage of other NPR correspondents, as we near election time.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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