Sean Duffy, Welcome to Your New Real World

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 26, 2010 · 12:33 PM EDT

Wisconsin Republican Congressional hopeful Sean Duffy probably now feels like he’s a victim of a classic bait-and-switch. But in this case, it’s Duffy who is a victim of his own success as a candidate.

After running for months against veteran Democratic Rep. David Obey in Wisconsin’s sprawling 7th district, which includes much of the northwestern quarter of the state, Duffy now finds himself running in November against Julie Lassa, a 39-year-old Democratic state Senator who will force Duffy to alter his message.

I interviewed Duffy at length in mid-March, and I was more impressed with him than I expected to be. Like everyone else, I had heard about his time as a cast member on MTV’s “Real World” in 1997 and his subsequent appearance on the network’s “Road Rules,” and that certainly lowered my expectations.

But instead of finding merely a self-promoting pseudo-celebrity looking for the latest way to get media exposure, I found an outgoing, energetic and engaging county district attorney who had won five elections and was incredibly focused on ousting longtime incumbent Obey in November.

The Republican already had about $300,000 on hand in the middle of March, and he was confident that he could raise $1.2 million for the race. (His March 31 numbers were $506,000 raised and $340,000 on hand.)

Duffy, 38, seemed like the perfect Republican to challenge Obey, 71, this year, with voters angry at the political establishment and Democrats almost certain to face the public’s wrath about unemployment and deficit spending.

Obey, the House Appropriations chairman, could easily be painted as responsible for the nation’s spending spree, its deficit and its debt.

And since he was first elected to the House in an April 1969 special election (or as Duffy has been noting, before the United States put a man on the moon), Obey served for more than 40 years by the time his 2010 re-election rolled around. That remarkable achievement might not look so positive given the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress and desire for change.

During my meeting with him, Duffy presented 2010 as a perfect storm for Obey: an angry electorate, Obey’s role in the stimulus and the deficit, and Duffy as the GOP’s strongest challenger in years.

After my meeting with Duffy, I added the district to my list of competitive races, since I thought the challenger’s energy and enthusiasm, combined with the vulnerability of some senior Democrats, gave Duffy a real shot at upsetting Obey. Duffy still had an uphill trek, but his scenario was entirely reasonable.

Obey’s decision not to seek re-election changes the Congressional race dramatically and forces Duffy to toss almost all of his strategy into the nearest trash can.

Instead of running against an older man, Duffy faces a woman his own age. Instead of facing someone who has been in Washington for decades, he’s paired against a state legislator. And instead of facing the sometimes crotchety Obey, he faces a woman whose “soft-spoken demeanor is the polar opposite of the blunt, abrasive tone that marked Dave Obey’s political career,” according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report shortly after Lassa became a candidate for the open seat.

Lassa was elected to the state Assembly in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 and 2002. In 2003, she won a special election for an open state Senate district. She was re-elected twice to the district, in 2004 and 2008, and she isn’t up again until 2012.

While Duffy lives in a county in the lightly populated extreme northern end of the district, Lassa comes from the more populous southern end of the district. That could give Lassa a considerable edge.

As a whole, the district tilts Democratic. Barack Obama won it by a solid 13 points over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, but Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Al Gore each carried the district by only a single point, in 2004 and 2000. Bill Clinton carried the district, which was shaped only slightly differently, in 1992 and 1996.

I haven’t met Lassa yet, so I can’t vouch for her appeal. And I don’t know what kind of campaign she will put together.

Republicans note, quite correctly, that whatever his vulnerabilities, Dave Obey had plenty of support in the district, had $1.4 million in the bank when he exited the race and had earned a reputation as a feisty, tough opponent. His retirement creates an open seat, which can’t be good for Democrats in the kind of midterm that is developing.

But in some ways, Lassa might end up being a more difficult foe for Duffy than Obey would have been. In any case, Sean Duffy will now have to run a very different kind of campaign than he planned less than two months ago.

Welcome to the real world of American politics, Mr. Duffy.