Is Kind Worried?

The race for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District will be more interesting than your average politico would’ve guessed.

Congressman Ron Kind, the congressman-for-life in this Western Wisconsin district, sent an email blast yesterday asking for money, claiming that “This week Republican “Young Guns” launched a $500,000 direct mail attack. And I am one of the targets.” [his emphasis]

Mr. Kind doesn’t mention how much of that is to be spent in his race, normally a Democrat-leaning area, even moreso after the Republican redistricting of 2010 removed some right-leaning areas from the district. It’s also a relatively small amount of money considering Mr. Kind’s million-dollar-plus warchest.

Typically, running against Ron Kind is seen as a bandsaw into which only one or two conservatives choose to step, and that’s partly because of the blue hue of the district and partly because of Mr. Kind’s prowess for raking in cash. But at the height of the 2010 GOP wave driven by healthcare reform, Dan Kapanke came within a hair of accomplishing the impossible; had it not been for a third-party buffoon named Michael Krsien, whose over-the-top tone had conservatives wondering whether the guy was serious about his own platform, Mr. Kapanke would’ve lost by just enough votes to fill a victory party.

This year, another in which Obamacare will take center stage, the race has attracted an usually large number of Republican candidates. Four are known to be officially in. Ken Van Doren, a Tea Party activist from Mauston; Chris Anderson, a veteran and Ron Johnson staffer from La Crosse; and Karen Mueller, an Eau Claire attorney, all spoke at the 3rd District Republican Party caucus in La Crosse on Saturday. But one other candidate, heretofore mostly unknown even in Republican circles, caught enough eyes that caucus-goers voted down endorsing one of the candidates.

He is Tony Kurtz, a veteran and farmer who lives in Prairie du Chien, and he might be the right person at the right time to give Ron Kind a strong challenge.

According to his website, Mr. Kurtz served in the Army for 20 years before moving to Prairie du Chien with his wife Kim. Kim, a Westby native and Viterbo University nursing graduate, and a veteran herself, works as a CRNA at Prairie du Chien hospital. After moving to PdC, Mr. Kurtz and his wife started a small farm that has grown to more than 200 acres, most of it certified organic.

All of that experience will allow Mr. Kurtz to talk expertly about issues Mr. Kind has claimed to champion throughout his time in Congress. Veterans affairs. Agriculture. Most recently, healthcare.

For Mr. Kind, these have been politically lucrative issues. For Mr. Kurtz, they’re his life story.

A political newbie, Mr. Kurtz also has the credibility to challenge Mr. Kind’s clear status as the career politician, a Harvard-graduated lawyer who has been in politics for nearly 20 years. Mr. Kind could also be especially animated this election cycle by a desire to move up the D.C. social ladder by felling Senator Ron Johnson in 2016, an ambition that’s really not a secret in Western Wisconsin.

But for his inexperience, I found out on Saturday that Tony Kurtz has the spark. He can speak with energy and enthusiasm on the subjects that will be most important this fall. He gave a compelling speech at the 3rd District caucus. He shook nearly every hand in the room, plus nearly every hand at the La Crosse GOP’s Lincoln Dinner later that night. More than 200 were in attendance at each event.

That’s not to say he’s the only Republican with any verve. Mr. Van Doren, a stalwart libertarian activist and a genuinely good man, had a strong presence on Saturday as well. Both Mr. Van Doren and Mrs. Mueller would make strong candidates, but I believe Mr. Kurtz would be the strongest.

The race will be very tough and the right tone must be struck to defeat Mr. Kind. The Congressman’s positioned himself as the champion of veterans, of which there are many in the district; farmers, of which there are many in the district; and the elderly, of which there are many in the district. In the past he’s also sung the song of bipartisanship, a chord which for him seems less important to pluck lately as his rhetoric gets more and more divisive.

The GOP must also be wary of possible strategic maneuvering by the Democrats. They could recruit another third party candidate like Mr. Krsien or interfere in the GOP primary with the intent of assisting the weakest candidate via cross-over votes. In Wisconsin, Democrats can vote in Republican primaries, a dirty trick for which there is precedent in the area.

Maneuvering aside, what Mr. Kind doesn’t understand is what the GOP must exploit: the Congressman can claim to be on the side of the people all the wants, but eventually the hot air all exits the balloon. Obamacare will be an albatross around his neck, and Mr. Kurtz is agile, able, and willing to draw a clear alternative from a position of authority on all these issues.

Given a blind choice between a veteran-farmer and a lawyer-politician, it isn’t a tough to know which most voters would pick. Given competitive funding, there might be a good chance that Mr. Kind will never have the opportunity to run against Ron Johnson in 2016.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.