Meet the three Democrats running in Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District - TAI News
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Katrina Shankland, Eric Wilson, and Rebecca Cooke are running for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District. (Photos courtesy of the Cooke, Shankland, and Wilson campaigns, graphic by Olivia Herken)

One of the most competitive elections in Wisconsin this November will be in the 3rd Congressional District, a swing district in the western part of the state where three Democrats are currently campaigning to challenge Republican incumbent Rep. Derrick Van Orden.

The district, which was previously represented by a Democrat for nearly three decades but flipped to the right in 2022 with Van Orden’s election, is considered a key seat to take control of the House. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report says the district currently leans Republican.

Initially a crowded primary, the Democratic field has now narrowed down to three candidates who will compete in the Aug. 13 primary: Eau Claire small-business owner Rebecca Cooke, longtime state Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point, and progressive newcomer Eric Wilson of Eau Claire.

Millions of dollars have already been funneled into the race, and Cooke has outraised the other Democrats, with more than $1.2 million raised as of March 31. Shankland has raised the second-largest amount with $515,964, and Wilson has raised the least with $42,495. Van Orden, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary, has raised the most overall, with about $3.5 million.

While the Democrats’ positions overlap on many issues — all three want Congress to codify reproductive rights, for example — they’re trying to find daylight between each other by defining their personalities, experience and what issues matter most to them.

Rebecca Cooke

Cooke is running again after losing in the 2022 primary to state Sen. Brad Pfaff by about 8%. On top of campaigning, Cooke also operates a nonprofit for female entrepreneurs, runs a hospitality business in Menomonie, and waitresses three nights a week — all of which, she said, makes her more appealing to voters.

Voters don’t want another career politician, she said, and her background as a homegrown everyman sets her apart. She has never held office before, though she served on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation from 2019 to 2021, and she grew up on a dairy farm.

“I don’t have to ask permission to step off the sidelines to serve my community. And I think that it would be really healthy for us to have more people doing just what I’m doing and stepping off the sidelines and using their experiences in business, in the classroom, to really lead our nation,” she said.

On issues, Cooke said the difference between her and her fellow Democrats comes down to style and approach. She uses her lived experiences, like her parents’ struggles to afford health care in retirement, to connect with people across the aisle. She said she’s paying attention to the rising costs of gas and groceries and the affordable housing crisis and she wants to pass a farm bill.

Katrina Shankland

First elected to the state Assembly in 2013, Shankland is, conversely, leaning on her decade-plus in office, saying it gives her a leg up because voters don’t want a “candidate coming into Congress on training wheels.”

Confident and well-researched, Shankland can recount the issues she’s worked on breezily, from lowering prescription drug prices to improving water quality, two issues she hopes to prioritize if elected to Congress, too.

She said she’s been solutions-oriented since she was a little girl, worried about issues like litter in her community. But being able to execute solutions comes from her ability to reach across the aisle, she said. She hopes to govern like former Rep. Ron Kind, who represented the 3rd District for 26 years and was frequently voted among the most bipartisan members of Congress.

“Throughout the race people will say, here’s where they stand. But I have a track record that shows it, a voting record that shows it, and a record of getting results from my community in central Wisconsin to demonstrate that what I’m saying isn’t just true, I’ve already done it,” she said.

She said her experience winning elections makes her a better candidate. She has won reelection to the Assembly five times, twice against a Republican opponent whom she beat by 11% in 2020 and 14% in 2022.

Eric Wilson

As the newcomer in the race, Wilson is separating himself from the other two candidates by saying he is the only one who isn’t solely fueled by the possibility of unseating Van Orden, who has had a turbulent record, which has included attending the rally that turned into the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or berating a teenage page over a Pride month display at the Prairie du Chien Library, since entering politics.

“While I have differences with Derrick, I’m not running just to get Derrick out. I’m running to actually fight and have solutions for the problems that we’re facing,” Wilson said.

Wilson was born in Menomonie and works in health insurance and real estate. Dubbed the progressive candidate in the race, Wilson, who is gay, said he first thought about running for office after the mass shooting at the LGBTQ+ nightclub Club Q in Colorado Springs in 2022. Other firsthand experiences, like being raised by a public school teacher and health care worker, going into medical debt after having surgery to repair a concave chest, and caring for his dad, who has Stage 4 prostate cancer, have also motivated him to get politically involved.

He said he connects with the younger voters in the district that are often overlooked and are needed to win the election, and he cares about issues such as climate change, health care, housing, democracy, cost of living, mental health, gun safety laws, and LGBTQ+ rights, and said he’s the only candidate who has called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“I’m talking about stuff that people want to be talking about,” he said. “I’m willing to tackle the difficult issues and make a stance and show where my heart is, and that’s with people.”

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