MADISON, Wis. — The special election to fill the northern Wisconsin congressional seat that was held until recently by Republican Rep. Sean Duffy will take place May 12 and the primary will happen Feb. 18, Gov. Tony Evers said Friday.
The decision, which was to be made official on Saturday, keeps the election in the deeply Republican 7th Congressional District on a different day than a state Supreme Court election and Wisconsin's presidential primary. Democrats feared that holding the special election on the same date, April 7, would drive up Republican turnout and help conservative incumbent Justice Dan Kelly.
President Donald Trump carried the district by 20 percentage points in 2016. Kelly is part of a 5-2 conservative majority on the court. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and is now seeking a full 10-year term. He's being challenged by liberal-backed candidates Ed Fallone, a Marquette University law school professor and Jill Karofsky, a Dane County circuit judge.
The 7th District seat is vacant because Duffy resigned on Sept. 23 to spend more time with his family ahead of the birth of his ninth child. His daughter was born last week with Down syndrome and holes in her heart that will require surgery.
Evers, a Democrat, set the dates after having to backtrack from his original plan to hold the primary on Dec. 30 and the general election on Jan. 27. Evers said he wanted to move as quickly as possible to fill the seat so people in the massive district that includes Wausau and much of northern and central Wisconsin would have representation.
With the new dates, the seat will be vacant for more than seven months rather than just four months, as Evers originally proposed.
"The people of Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District deserve to have a voice in Congress," Evers said in a statement. "The revised timeline for the special election will ensure that voters will have the full protections afforded to them under federal law, reduce the administrative burden and cost for county and municipal clerks, and ensure that all candidates are treated fairly by keeping the nomination paper deadline the same as what was set (previously)."
Evers picked the dates he did to secure a political advantage, said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
"Tony Evers and the Democrats are terrified of rural voters and there are no limits to the lengths they'll go to suppress their votes," Jefferson said.
Evers had to reverse himself after being told by the U.S. Department of Justice that the initial dates violated federal law setting minimum days between a primary and general election, even though they met different state law requirements. In setting the new dates, Evers called on the Republican-led Legislature to change state law to prevent a similar future conflict.
Three Republicans have announced their candidacies in the congressional race. They are Tom Tiffany, a state senator from Minocqua; Jason Church, an Army veteran who lost both his legs in Afghanistan and worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson; and Michael Opela Sr., who lives on a hobby farm in Edgar.
Tiffany, in a tweet, said Evers "bungled" setting the election date.
There are two Democratic candidates. They are Tricia Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board and Dale Lawrence, an insurance broker and Vietnam veteran who lives in Michigan but plans to move to Wisconsin. Zunker, a justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, is seeking to become Wisconsin's first Native American member of Congress.