Pfaff says he’s running for Congress to be a good neighbor

He says starkly different values separate him from GOP frontrunner Van Orden

By: - October 5, 2021 6:30 am
Brad Pfaff on the campaign trail shaking hands with a farmer inside a tractor.

Brad Pfaff on the campaign trail. (Photo courtesy of Pfaff campaign.)

If the message surrounding state Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) kickoff of his run for Congress is any indication, he plans to spend the next year talking about values, growing up on his family’s dairy farm, rural life and being a good neighbor.

It’s understandable, and likely a good campaign strategy as well, that he sounds a bit like Mr. Rogers, because the Republican front-runner — Derrick Van Orden — is the anti-Mr. Rogers. Van Orden, of whom former President Donald Trump stated, “Derrick has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” lost to current 3rd congressional district Rep. Ron Kind in 2020 by 2.7 points in a district Trump carried by 4.7 points. Van Orden declared in April he was running for the seat again. Pfaff announced his campaign Monday.

Derrick Van Orden
Derrick Van Orden

Pfaff’s resume is steeped in agriculture and rural Wisconsin. In fact, he was hired by Rep. Ron Kind, who is stepping down after 26 years, because of his experience on rural issues. He headed the state’s Farm Service Agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration.

“I spent most of my life with rural residents, small farmers and family businesses,” says Pfaff. “It’s the background I have. I always wanted to work on rural issues.”

Pfaff garnered statewide and even national attention when Republicans in the state Senate refused to confirm him as Gov. Tony Evers’ secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) after a skirmish between then Secretary-designee Pfaff and Republican legislative leadership over their delay in releasing mental health funding for farmers. Pfaff turned around and won a seat in the same body that refused to confirm him in Nov. 2020.

His campaign message centers around not only rural values, but also the concrete needs of rural people for health insurance, infrastructure, schools and technical colleges. He doesn’t talk much about being a Democrat; he talks about his father being “an independent farmer” and “that sense of being in a rural area,” as more important than politics.

Pfaff contrasts himself with Van Orden, saying he doesn’t believe that “the Republican candidate shares the same values.”

Being a good neighbor is not marching into a library and harassing a high school student volunteering.

– Sen. Brad Pfaff

Van Orden, a  former Navy seal, has engaged in controversial behavior. A far-right Republican, he went to  the Capitol in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 and was present at the insurrection. His own social media posts place him on the grounds of the Capitol inside the restricted area, despite his claim  in an op-ed in the La Crosse Tribune that he was not on the grounds. In his book, “Book of Man: A Navy SEAL’s Guide to the Lost Art of Manhood,” he wrote about exposing a man’s genitals to two “cute” female officers. More recently he created a scene with his complaints to staff at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library about being offended by an LGBTQ book display for Pride Month in June that caused staff, including a 17-year-old page, to tell the La Crosse Tribune they felt harassed by him. (After complaining Van Orden got a library card and checked out every book in the Pride Month display. Later citizens donated boxes of LGBTQ books to the library.)

In contrasting himself with Van Orden, Pfaff first describes his deep roots in Western Wisconsin, going back to his early relatives who arrived and began farming there in the 1800s. Then he returns, again, to his repeated theme of values that create a sense of community and make for good neighbors.


“Being a good neighbor is not marching into a library and harassing a high school student volunteering,” he says.

“We can disagree, but we don’t have to be disagreeable,” Pfaff adds.

He praises Kind, calling him “wonderful, absolutely,” but distinguishes himself from Kind, saying they come from different backgrounds. In fact, he says Kind hired him precisely because of his rural experience, which the outgoing congressman lacked. Pfaff also worked for former Sen. Herb Kohl.

Brad Pfaff headshot outdoors
Brad Pfaff

The 3rd CD seat in western Wisconsin includes La Crosse, Crawford, Vernon and part of Monroe counties and is the biggest toss up congressional seat in Wisconsin, a swing state, so it is guaranteed to draw lots of national attention and cash. Kind was one of just seven Democratic members of Congress who won in a district that was also won by Trump and was cited as a top Republican target before he announced in August that he was stepping down after nearly three decades in Congress, intensifying the national focus on the area.

Van Orden’s campaign said on Monday that he raised $1 million in the past quarter that ended in July and had more than $600,000 on hand in the last report. “Ending Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s radical one-party rule in Washington starts here in Wisconsin’s 3rd District,” Van Orden said in a statement on his fundraising. “Everyday, I meet with Wisconsinites who are tired of Washington politicians putting themselves above the people they represent.”

Asked about going up against that war chest, Pfaff instead responds that his confidence in his campaign lies in “working hard in a bipartisan manner,” adding, “The people of western Wisconsin understand the difference between right and wrong.”

Pushed on whether he is uneasy about Van Orden’s early fundraising start, Pfaff says he is confident that his campaign will have the resources to get out his message. “I’m focused exclusively on building a broad, grassroots campaign … which will reach all parts of the district. People will definitely know about me and about my campaign.”

Campaigns in their words

Sen. Brad Pfaff’s campaign website features the words “Wisconsin Values,” in a large font, along with “Deep Roots. Good Neighbor.” His explanation for his run includes: “Brad Pfaff is a proud son of the rolling hills, coulees, and valleys of northern La Crosse County. He learned the value of hard work, resilience, appreciation for the land, and respect for his community while growing up on his family’s dairy farm.”

Derrick Van Orden’s campaign website reads, “Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness,” in large font, adding, ““We don’t need any more politicians in Washington, we need Statesmen. I am not a politician.” Under the heading, “America the Beautiful” his site states: “America is the ‘shining city upon a hill’ and Wisconsin is the heart of that city. Simply by being born in this great nation, we have been given opportunities unlike any other people in the world. America is truly exceptional, and it is up to us as citizens to work tirelessly to maintain the freedoms we have been endowed.”



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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.