Congressman Sean Duffy abruptly resigns

By: and - August 26, 2019 11:29 am
US Rep Sean Duffy official portrait

U.S. Rep Sean Duffy

The resignation of Congressman Sean Duffy is attracting a lot of attention — not only in Wisconsin, but nationwide because of the buzz Wisconsin is getting as a key 2020 election state. Duffy announced today that he is resigning from Congress, effective next month, to spend time with his family.

“Duffy’s resignation is momentous for multiple reasons,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “Not only does it create an open congressional seat that Democrats would hope to flip, but in the medium term it also take a rising political star out of the limelight.”

Duffy and his wife, FOX News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy, are expecting their ninth child in October. He shared today that they recently learned the baby has a heart condition and other complications, which he said is the reason for his decision to step down, effective Sept. 23.

Recently Wisconsin Republican leaders including former Speaker Paul Ryan and former Gov. Scott Walker, have stepped down or lost their seats, which has intensified the focus on Duffy  as a rising star in the Wisconsin GOP. 

Duffy was first elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave when a number of Republics flipped enough seats for the GOP to seize control of the House and stymie much of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. While this seat became tilted heavily towards Republicans after redistricting, it is the same seat held from 1969 to 2011 by Democrat Dave Obey, prior to redistricting.

Adding to the mystery of the seemingly abrupt announcement this morning was that around the same time Duffy posted to Facebook that he would resign, he also posted a newly designed website under

“It is highly unusual that a campaign would launch a new website this morning and then turn around and resign effective next month,” says Democratic strategist Ben Nuckels, who was a media consultant in Evers’ successful gubernatorial race last year. Here is his website as of Aug. 12.

Duffy spokesman Matt Schuck said the campaign’s website relaunch had been in the works for a while and it was “complete coincidence” it posted posting at the same time that he announced his resignation. Schuck added, “There is no other story…Sean is making a very difficult decision.”

‘Never say never’ 

Democrats say they’re bullish about turning the district blue again. 

“The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has been organizing in the 7th Congressional District continuously since the spring of 2017,” says Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler. “The prospect of a special election will spur our county parties and neighborhood teams to redouble their efforts to reach every Northern Wisconsin voter.”

Gov. Tony Evers is expected to call a special election for the remainder of Duffy’s two-year term.  

“The seat is especially winnable in a special election,” says Nuckels. “For Dems to win they need to focus on issues like health care, where Democrats want affordable, accessible health care for everyone, while Republicans and Trump have repeatedly been against it.”

Burden agrees the status of a special election makes it more winnable. “Democrats have had success in other special elections in the region, but the northwest part of the state has been trending strongly toward Republicans. Not only was the district reconfigured in the last redistricting to be more GOP-friendly, but the area has become a bastion of Trump support.”

Still, even Republican political observers think the dynamics of a special election make the outcome less certain. “It’s definitely lean GOP district,” Republican pundit Brian Fraley noted on Twitter. “But was rock solid GOP before this morning.” 

Burden opined earlier on Twitter that it is “not impossible a Dem could prevail in a special election” and he pointed out that state Sen. Patty Schachtner won a special election and her area covers part of Duffy’s district. He also noted there that “…in 2008 (pre-redistricting), Obama won it by 13 points. He won the state by 14, so almost no gap between the two. In 2012 (post-redistricting), Obama lost it by 3 points. He won the state by 7, so a gap of 10.”

Leah Askarinam, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections, a non-partisan newsletter, said turnout in a special election is difficult to predict. And a special election “may open the door a sliver for Democrats if they could hope that Republican turnout is low.”

She added, “it’s a Republican district and it’s definitely Republicans’ to lose.” 

The seat has been solid red in recent years, with Duffy beating his 2018 Democratic opponent Margaret Engebretson by a whopping 21 points.

Despite that tilt, Burden expects to see both Democratic and Republican candidates jumping into the race in the coming weeks — as well as attracting the eyes of the national parties and pundits alike: “The race in the 7th district could see heavy campaign spending and a lot of national attention because of its symbolic value in a key swing state.”

Scott Klug, a former Wisconsin Republican congressman, agreed that Democrats will have a “tough slog” winning Duffy’s seat. 

“You never say never,” Klug said, but he noted that the district is far redder than it was during the decades Obey held the seat. 

Klug mentioned state Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Minocqua, as a possible contender for the seat. Democrats who have challenged Duffy in the past may also enter the race.

Tiffany issued a statement thanking Duffy for his service and said, “Since Sean’s announcement this morning, I’ve been receiving a number of calls asking about what’s next. I plan to talk to my wife Chris and my daughters, and my future plans will be announced soon.” Another Republican people are watching is state Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon).

Rep. Nick Milroy (D-South Range) indicated he is considering the race. Other Democrats in the rumor mill include Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), former Sen. Pat Krietlow, who ran unsuccessfully against Duffy in 2012, and Wausau attorney Christine Bremer Muggli who sits on the board of the Wisconsin Association for Justice

Reliable Trump ally

Wisconsin Republicans say Duffy’s departure from Congress is a loss for the GOP. 

Burden, who is also director of the campus Elections Research Center, notes that “Duffy has been an important congressional ally for President Trump and is frequently mentioned as a possible statewide candidate for governor or U.S. senator in Wisconsin.” 

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight showed Duffy has voted with Trump 93.3% of the time.

Duffy serves on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, where he is one of the top-ranking Republicans and he is the ranking member on Housing, Community Development and Insurance subcommittee.

Rep. Brian Steil, a Republican who represents Wisconsin’s 1st U.S. House District, wrote on Twitter that Duffy “is a great friend, an unwavering champion for Wisconsin families, and most importantly, a devoted husband and father. He has been a great ally in Congress and will be sorely missed.”

Before his stint in Congress, Duffy was known for starring on MTV’s reality TV show “The Real World” and for winning the Lumberjack World Championships in northern Wisconsin. 

He’s a “great human being, a great guy with a big personality,” Klug said. His name “was at the top of everybody’s list” for a possible GOP Senate run in the future, Klug added. “I think everybody on the Republican side is very bummed.”

The Republican Party of Wisconsin chair Andrew Hitt responded to Duffy’s announcement in a statement: “Sean has always been a great friend of the Party and an exceptional proponent of our conservative ideals. We are extremely grateful for his years of service and friendship.”

‘The right decision for my family’

Here is part of the message Duffy shared on his Facebook page: 

“After eight and a half years, the time has come for me to focus more on the reason we fight these battles – family.

As you all know, raising a family is hard work. It’s especially true for one as large and busy as mine. Being away from home in Washington four days a week is challenging and for that reason, I have always been open to signs from God when it comes to balancing my desire to serve both my family and my country.

Recently, we’ve learned that our baby, due in late October, will need even more love, time, and attention due to complications, including a heart condition. With much prayer, I have decided that this is the right time for me to take a break from public service in order to be the support my wife, baby and family need right now. It is not an easy decision – because I truly love being your Congressman – but it is the right decision for my family, which is my first love and responsibility.”



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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.