The open-seat race in Wisconsin's 7th congressional district pretty much has it all: a former reality TV star, the full attention of both national party committees and an endorsement from Sarah Palin.
Former Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy (R) and state Sen. Julie Lassa (D) are battling to replace one of the most powerful legislators in Congress — 20-term Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) — and the race is shaping up as one of the premier open-seat contests of 2010.
The district's voters will be deluged by independent expenditure ads ahead of the fall and the race is quickly becoming a top battleground for the GOP, which would love to pick up a seat that has been solidly in Democratic hands for the past 40 years.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already spent six figures running independent expenditure ads in the race. The DCCC chose Duffy as its first IE target earlier this month, running a spot accusing the Republican of wanting to privatize Social Security.
The DCCC followed that up with an ad last week that targeted Duffy's reality-show past. The candidate was a past contestant on MTV's "The Real World," and the ad hit Duffy's "Hollywood lifestyle," labeling him "out of touch with Wisconsin."
The National Republican Congressional Committee has hit Lassa already, too. In its first ad in the district, the committee accused her of voting to raise her own pay in the State Legislature.
In Duffy's latest ad, he draws on his professional lumberjack past, donning a plaid shirt and promising to "bring the ax to Washington."
If Duffy's profile and backing from Palin have helped him gain some national media attention so far this cycle, it's the solid fundraising and organizing base that he's been able to build that worries Democrats.
Duffy started pulling together his campaign close to a year ago when he anticipated being a long-shot challenger to Obey. But when the Appropriations Committee chairman suddenly announced his retirement earlier this year, the race immediately became competitive and Duffy was the candidate with the early leg up.
But Democrats were able to field a strong challenger in Lassa, whose fundraising has been propped up courtesy of her backing by EMILY's List. In the second quarter of the year, Lassa raised some $313,000 to Duffy's $465,000 — a solid showing for a candidate who just jumped into the race this past spring.
Obey has had a lock on the 7th district for 20 terms, but the terrain is only marginally Democratic. While President Obama took the district easily over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) just barely edged former President George W. Bush in the 7th back in 2004.
Like in most congressional battlegrounds this fall, the race has been dominated by government spending and the economy. Duffy wants to freeze spending at 2008 levels and has called for redirecting unused Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money to help pay down the federal deficit. Lassa wants Congress to take a pay cut and has pledged to seek changes to trade agreements like NAFTA, which she says has cost thousands of Wisconsin workers their jobs.
There will be plenty of debate fodder between Lassa and Duffy before November. The Republican originally wanted as many as 20 debates between the Sept. 14 primary and the general election, but it looks like he'll have to settle for less than half that number. On Monday, Lassa accepted invitations to eight debates between now and Nov. 2.
Duffy got a bit of a boost Monday when the candidate he defeated in last week's GOP primary, Dan Mielke, decided against waging a write-in bid this fall. Duffy beat Mielke handily last Tuesday, winning over 60 percent of the vote, but any write-in campaign likely would have boosted Lassa in the general election.