Wisconsin’s 3rd District candidates differ sharply on gun safety and abortion rights

Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis., waits to speak to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Democratic challengers hoping to unseat Wisconsin Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden in 2024 disagree with the incumbent on key policy topics.

Just two of Wisconsin’s eight U.S. congressional districts are considered potentially competitive as a result of the state’s heavily gerrymandered map. Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District has voted about four points more Republican than the country as a whole in recent elections.

In 2022, Van Orden narrowly defeated Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff to win the open western Wisconsin district seat, which includes Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Stevens Point.

Pfaff said in August that he will not seek a rematch. The filing deadline for the race is not until June 2024, but four candidates have already said they will seek the Democratic nomination to run against Van Orden next year.

Rep. Derrick Van Orden

Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL who lives in Prairie du Chien, was present at the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” riot at the U.S. Capitol that sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. He reportedly crossed police barricades, according to the Daily Beast. He also made headlines in July 2023 for cursing out a group of teenage Senate pages, some of the high school students who spend a semester serving as messengers for members of Congress, who were photographing the Capitol’s Rotunda.

Though he makes no mention of reproductive rights on his campaign or House issues pages, Van Orden has strongly opposed abortion. In his unsuccessful 2020 congressional campaign he called himself “100% pro-life,” accepted campaign funds from the anti-abortion PAC Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and said abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. In April 2023, he called for a 15-week abortion ban in Wisconsin with “exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest.”

According to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s congressional scorecard, Van Orden has amassed a 0% voting record, indicating that he voted against sexual and reproductive health at every chance.

Van Orden also opposes gun safety legislation. In May 2022, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he had been fined in 2021 for illegally bringing a gun in his luggage into an Iowa airport; his campaign called it “purely accidental.” He received the top possible rating in 2020 from the National Rifle Association. In 2022, he accepted a $4,950 campaign donation from its PAC and touted the group’s endorsement.

During congressional debate on Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure proposals, Van Orden tweeted in September 2021 opposing proposals to raise taxes for those earning $400,000 or more annually, claiming: “@POTUS plan will increase taxes on everyday Americans. They are not telling you the truth.” A spokesperson for Van Orden did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether he backs a GOP bill to make permanent the individual tax cut provisions in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which mostly benefited the wealthiest Americans.

The Democrats

Rebecca Cooke, an Eau Claire-based small business owner, filed as a candidate on July 10. Her platform includes “creating an economy built for working families,” “fighting for Wisconsin’s original entrepreneur — the farmer,” and “strengthening the working class and empowering unions.” In a section on her priorities page called “Protecting Reproductive Health Freedoms,” Cooke says: “In Congress, I will always protect reproductive healthcare and the personal freedoms of all Wisconsinites. You can count on me to: Make decisions based on scientific evidence rather than politics. Unabashedly support the upholding of Roe vs. Wade.” In an email, she told the American Independent Foundation, “The Trump tax cuts, when fully implemented, give 83% of the benefits to the top 1%. I support middle class tax relief and ensuring the 1% pay their fair share.”

Asked about her position on gun safety, Cooke answered: “Our state has a rich heritage of hunting and gamesmanship, and I’ve hung out [at] a deer camp or two. That said, I think we need to require universal background checks, close the Charleston loophole, and enforce red flag laws. When asked recently if my aim was to take away people’s guns, my response was no. I want people to be responsible gun owners, to lawfully obtain and securely store firearms so they don’t fall into the hands of folks who are criminals or mentally ill. It’s called gun discipline.”

Tara Johnson, a former member of the La Crosse County Board, registered as a candidate on Sept. 6. Her campaign site notes: “Tara’s running for Congress to create economic opportunity, restore a woman’s right to choose, protect our democracy, and fight for rural Wisconsin communities that are too often left behind. As a mom in a proud union family, Tara understands the importance of family-supporting wages and access to affordable, quality healthcare, education, and childcare.” In an email, Johnson told the American Independent Foundation, “Unlike Republicans, like Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who pushes for even more restrictions on our reproductive freedom, including a federal abortion ban, I will fight to expand access to life-saving reproductive care and ensure access to safe abortion for women in Wisconsin and across the country.” Asked about tax policy, she wrote, “Middle class and working families in Western Wisconsin have had enough with Republicans in Washington looking out for the ultra-wealthy and big corporations, instead of us.”

On guns, Johnson said: “Responsible gun ownership means doing everything we can to keep our children and communities safe. We need to strengthen gun safety laws and prevent dangerous people from purchasing guns, starting with enhanced background checks, reinstating the assault weapons ban, and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, felons, and those with serious mental health issues – common sense reforms that hunters and law enforcement also support.”

Aaron Nytes, a Harvard Law School student from Hartford, Wisconsin, filed as a candidate on July 21. The policies section of his campaign site contains a section on abortion and bodily autonomy that says: “This issue is simple. What a woman does with her body is between her and her doctor. A woman should not have to worry about her access to care because she happens to live in a state that denies her that right. I support federal legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade and increase funding for women’s healthcare research.” He promises “to shift Wisconsin to the forefront of an equitable economy and society.” A spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about his positions on gun violence and tax policy.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, who has represented a Stevens Point-area district in the Wisconsin Assembly since 2013, joined the race on Oct. 2. Her campaign site does not yet have an issues page, but in an email she noted her strong support for reproductive rights: “That’s why I am a co-author of legislation to repeal Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban. Decisions about reproductive healthcare belong with women and our doctors, period.”

Shankland said that, as a hunter, she backs the Second Amendment and Wisconsin’s sporting heritage and has backed legislation to promote hunter safety and safe gun storage. “I also have co-sponsored bipartisan bills to crack down on straw purchasing and get guns out of the hands of violent criminals and close the domestic abuser loophole,” Shankland wrote. “Finally, I support common sense proposals that will improve public safety like closing the gun show loophole. These kinds of protections can help reduce gun violence deaths and keep our first responders safer.”

Shankland also said she opposes making Trump’s tax cuts for the rich permanent: “For far too long, seniors and working families have footed the bill for giveaways to corporations and the very wealthy. We deserve a fair economy where everyone can earn a good living, one that protects the promise of Social Security and Medicare while investing in infrastructure, healthcare, and education. The wealthiest Americans must pay their fair share — just like everyone.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.