By Matt Pommer
Strange events can have a long-range effect on government and politics.
Consider the 42-year congressional service of U.S. Rep. David Obey, who has announced he won’t seek re-election in November.
When he was 30, Obey scored an upset win in spring 1969 to fill the seat vacated by Mel Laird, who had become secretary of defense in the first Nixon cabinet. The Republican candidate was state Sen. Walter John Chilsen, who had been a Wausau television news anchor. Some quipped Chilsen was the Walter Cronkite of central Wisconsin.
Republicans sensed the district, rich in dairy farms, was safe country. In the 1969 primary for the special election, 46,473 voters cast GOP ballots. There were 20,858 votes in the Democratic primary.
But the Nixon administration scaled back dairy price support promises, announcing the decision just in time for the morning farm news programs on Election Day. Chilsen had campaigned saying Republicans took care of dairy farmers.
Listening to the morning farm news was part of the ritual of being a dairy farmer. The dairy farmers heard the stunning news and then finished the morning milking. Then they went back to their houses, got their wives and went to town to vote in the special election.
Obey quickly ran radio ads calling attention to the decision and got 63,567 votes. Chilsen received 59,512.
Some will suggest Obey was a much better fit for the then-7th District with strong ties to the Progressive movement. Some would say this was Hubert Humphrey country. Humphrey, who lost to Nixon, often was called Wisconsin’s third senator. Obey had worked for Humphrey in the 1960 presidential primary.
The election stunned Republicans across the state. The outcome was so sure that Chilsen’s wife Rose had bought a new dress for the expected inauguration ceremony of her husband in Washington.
Obey’s district was changed and expanded after the 1970 U.S. Census led to a reduction in Wisconsin’s number of members in the House of Representatives. Much of the old 10th District became part of the new 7th District.
Republican Alvin O’Konski had represented the 10th district for 30 years, and then retired. His long tenure was another sign that congressional incumbents do very well on election days.
That means congressional hopefuls really have very few serious chances to get to Washington. That’s why the field of candidates for Obeyís job may grow significantly.
Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.