by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
March 20, 2024

Rebecca Cooke jokes that she’s been running for Congress for three and a half years. After finishing in second place, 8 points behind state Sen. Brad Pfaff in the district’s crowded 2022 Democratic primary, Cooke is trying to win the seat back for Democrats after two years under Republican Rep. Derrick Van Orden. 

Prior to and since his election, Van Orden has repeatedly made headlines for public outbursts and controversies. He attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol, he berated a teenage employee of a Prairie du Chien library over an LGBTQ book display, he yelled at teenage Senate pages for taking photos in the Capitol rotunda and he interrupted President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech earlier this month by shouting “lies.” 

For nearly 30 years before Van Orden’s election, the district was represented by moderate Democratic Rep. Ron Kind. 

The swingy 3rd District covers much of Wisconsin’s western Driftless Area from the Iowa border up to Eau Claire and Monroe Counties near the Twin Cities. It also extends east along the Wisconsin River up to Stevens Point. 

Cooke says she thinks voters in the district are embarrassed by Van Orden and that her background and style are what is needed to unseat him. On top of the controversies surrounding Van Orden — which also played a major part in the 2022 race Pfaff lost by three points — Cooke says the rural district needs a different representative in order to get a farm bill passed, a task at which Van Orden, the only member of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation on the House Agriculture committee, has been ineffective, she argues.  

The previous owner of an Eau Claire small business, Cooke is from a dairy farming family. She runs a nonprofit aimed at helping women-owned businesses in a number of Wisconsin counties and even as the campaign heats up, continues to waitress three nights a week. 

Cooke tells the Wisconsin Examiner that her background as an “outsider” makes her better positioned to win the primary and general election than a “career politician.” Her opponent in the primary, state Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), has been in the Legislature since 2013. 

“I think my background and profile is really suited to  connect with swing, moderate and independent voters,” she says. “You know, I don’t come from a career background in politics, and I feel like there’s a lot of people in our district that want to have a representative that has lived experiences that they can connect to, I think career politicians make folks a little bit more leery.” 

Cooke tells a story of a Republican voter she met at the Richland County fair last summer who at first wasn’t interested in talking to her because of her identification as a Democrat. She says she was able to connect with him because she could talk about the needs of people in the district. She says that after talking about her parents’ experience traveling to Mexico to get cheaper dental care and how that makes her believe in expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision, he opened up.  

“We had this long conversation, he told me he voted for Donald Trump and that I didn’t seem like a politician,” she says. “And that’s because I’m not one and I think that that’s what people in this district are really looking for, is someone that has shared a lot of those lived experiences, is also pragmatic in the types of policies that they’re putting forward.” 

Cooke has been endorsed by the House Blue Dog PAC, a group of moderate Democrats who have won races in districts won by Trump. Cooke says the Blue Dog caucus has a vision that aligns with what she believes the 3rd District wants and that the success of candidates like Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Washington) — who flipped a Republican district in part by touting her blue collar background — can be replicated in Wisconsin. 

“I’m really proud to be a part of the house Blue Dog coalition,” Cooke says. “It’s under new leadership, and I think has a different sort of vision that fits my politics and, I think, what people are looking for in this district. I think that they have the right idea of how we expand our Democratic tent and how we also bring back more working voters into the fold. So I’m really proud to be a part of the coalition. And I think that they’ve been successful in getting things passed, legislation passed, that reflects the districts that they serve.” 

Cooke’s opponent Shankland is taking a different path to win back the district. While Blue Dog Democrats are the most conservative coalition within the Democratic caucus, and have been criticized for endorsing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and helping to kill the public option when the Affordable Care Act was passed , Shankland is running with the endorsements of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a member of the House Progressive Caucus, longtime progressive Rep. David Obey and several local unions. 

Cooke says Shankland “might lean a little bit more left” than her, but that their policy views on issues such as abortion rights and health care are similar. Rather, Cooke says, “I think it comes down to the profile that’s going to be able to take on [Van Orden].”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Support local news with a membership!

WisCommunity Staff
News Section

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.