Peter Theron 54
Math instructor, software consultant, Madison
Ran unsuccessfully against Baldwin in 2008
Chad Lee 28
Owner, Better Butler, Mount Horeb
First run for elected office
Peter Theron thinks Republicans have reasons to feel good about their fortunes in Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District.
"David Obey and Jim Doyle both chose to retire rather than run for reelection," says Theron, one of two GOP candidates for the seat, explaining his optimism. "The polling across the state shows Republicans surging on the generic ballot.... All of these indicators suggest that this year will be different from previous years."
For Theron's prediction to prove correct, this year would have to be a lot different. In 2008, when the Madison software engineer ran for the post against incumbent Tammy Baldwin, he garnered a dismal 31% of the vote.
Indeed, even observers who predict sweeping Republican gains in the fall elections tend not to share Theron's views regarding the 2nd District. Baldwin, 48, is now a six-term incumbent and, since her narrow win over UW professor John Sharpless in 2000, has not won a race by fewer than 25 points.
Despite the odds, Theron and another Republican, Chad Lee, are vying to challenge Baldwin in November. Neither has received much in the way of media attention or campaign cash, but both are banking on a conservative backlash to the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress to pull off a stunning upset. They face each other in the Sept. 14 primary.
By some measures, Lee is the more promising of the two Republican candidates. He's young, 28, with a telegenic smile and small-town background, and has appeal to both the religious and business orientations of party members. A former keyboardist in Rex Lex, a Christian rock band, Lee is now the owner of a house-cleaning business in Mount Horeb.
The issue of money also plays in Lee's favor. While the $59,002 he reported raising by the end of August is meager in the context of congressional elections, it was enough to run a TV ad, and it dwarfs the $8,642 Theron reported raising during the same time.
And Lee has clearly formatted his message to accommodate the 2nd District's more liberal to moderate tendencies. For instance, the rookie candidate has stayed away from chest-thumping on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. "I believe these are questions the federal government has no business answering," Lee wrote in an email to Isthmus. He adds that he believes life begins at conception and that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Moreover, Lee's economic message, while conservative, appeals to anti-big business sentiments as well as anti-government ones. As his first TV ad proclaims, "Tammy Baldwin's vote for the Wall Street bailout means Wall Street works while America doesn't."
Nevertheless, there is little in Lee's issue stances that varies from conventional GOP orthodoxy. His rhetoric reflects that of other Republican candidates who hope to exploit the anti-incumbency sentiment as well as fears of debt and further recession. Like other GOP challengers, Lee champions term limits and derides career politicians.
In fact, in May it was reported that some of the text on his website had been lifted word-for-word from other campaign sites, including those of Rep. Paul Ryan and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. "It was a clerical error," explained Lee spokesman David Summers.
Unsurprisingly, Theron characterizes Lee as running on "general themes rather than specific policies."
And in fact, in personality and background, Peter Theron is Chad Lee's antithesis.
A graduate of Princeton, Theron moved to Madison in 1980 to get a Ph.D. from the UW-Madison. He has since taught math, computer science and statistics at various colleges, including the UW, and does consulting for computer and software companies.
Plain-spoken, wonky and visibly anxious, Theron does not convey the appearance or the message of a politician. And, unlike Lee, Theron has not moderated his right-wing message.
"I am campaigning for a mandate to govern as a conservative," he writes when explaining the difference between his and Lee's candidacies.
He emphasizes an aggressive foreign policy, including the continued prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as increased pressure on states such as Russia and China. He opposes abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother, calls manmade global warming a "myth," supports steep income tax cuts, and believes the current Social Security system should be phased out for future retirees.
Theron has taken a particular interest in the high-speed rail line that will link Madison to Milwaukee. He's against it.
"Everyone uses the interstate highway system, but the train will only be used by an elite few," he states on his website. At the end of August, Theron organized a protest at the corner of Blair and Williamson Streets against both high-speed rail and commuter rail, which could potentially be part of the Dane County Regional Transit Authority. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, roughly 20 protesters took part.
But beating Baldwin is a tall order for any candidate. A staunch advocate of liberal causes and the first open lesbian elected to Congress, Baldwin fits the lefty character of the district, which encompasses all of Dane County and several surrounding counties, including the heavily Democratic Rock County.
"Tammy continues to win reelection with ever-increasing margins of victory because she is a strong progressive leader who represents our district well and works hard in Congress and on the campaign trail," says Peter Rickmann, the chair of the 2nd Congressional District Democratic Party.
If Baldwin's name recognition and politics don't earn her automatic reelection, her prodigious fundraising should seal the deal. As of Sept. 3, her campaign had $775,775 on hand.
In 1990, when Republican Scott Klug pulled an upset win over longtime Democratic Bob Kastenmeier, the 2nd District was not as solidly Democratic. Although it was centered on liberal Dane County, it did not yet include the heavily Democratic city of Beloit, which was added after the 2000 redistricting.
Now the Cook Political Report assigns a Partisan Voter Index of "D + 15" to the district. Only one district with such a high Democratic rating Louisiana's 2nd is represented by a Republican in Congress. And that happened only after the incumbent Democrat became embroiled in a corruption scandal that would eventually earn him a 13-year prison term.