Former La Crosse County Board Chair joins Democratic field in highly-watched congressional race

Tara Johnson announces her campaign, setting up the potential for another crowded primary to face Republican US Rep. Derrick Van Orden

A headshot of Tara Johnson
Tara Johnson, former La Crosse County Board Chair and local Democratic leader, is running for the 3rd congressional district, hoping to face Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden in the 2024 election. Courtesy of Tara Johnson’s campaign.

Former La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson will run for Wisconsin’s 3rd congressional seat, expanding the field for the district’s Democratic primary.

Johnson announced her candidacy on Wednesday. She served on the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors for twenty years before choosing not to seek re-election in 2020. She was the first woman elected as chair of the county board and held the position for nearly a decade.

Johnson said she decided not to enter the crowded Democratic primary for the 3rd congressional district in 2022 because she supported other candidates. This election cycle, she said she is “embarrassed and ashamed” of the district’s current representative, first-term Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, due to his voting record and presence at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, among other reasons.

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“I just really feel like this is a continuation of the work that I have always done,” Johnson said. “This is an opportunity to reclaim the 3rd congressional seat for the people who live in this district. And I feel an obligation to make this run.”

Johnson said some of her top policy priorities include protecting reproductive rights, addressing the economy and improving safety, which she defined as including clean air and water.

Johnson is the third Democrat to launch a campaign for the 3rd congressional district ahead of the 2024 election.

In July, Eau Claire business leader Rebecca Cooke announced she would run for the seat again after losing the 2022 primary race to state Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska.

Harvard Law student Aaron Nytes announced in August his intention to join the Democratic primary race. Originally from the Milwaukee area, Nytes does not yet live in the district.

Pfaff announced last week that he would seek re-election to his state Senate seat this fall, ruling out a potential rematch between Pfaff and Van Orden in 2024.

Anthony Chergosky, assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said Pfaff’s decision could have been a strategic move to hold the state Senate seat for Democrats. With the possibility of a change in the state’s legislative maps under the new state Supreme Court, Chergosky said both parties are carefully considering the election next fall.

Former CIA officer Deb McGrath, who also ran for the seat in 2022, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she will not try a second run.

If either Johnson or Cooke are elected next fall, they would be the first woman to represent the 3rd district.

Chergosky said the two Democrats represent different strategies for appealing to voters.

“Rebecca Cooke is positioning herself as a fresh face on the political scene, someone who can bring a new perspective,” he said. “Meanwhile, Tara Johnson has expressed that her experience in politics is a benefit to her campaign and a benefit to a potential future career in Congress.”

Chergosky said one of the most important factors for any Democrat in the race is convincing their national party that they can defeat Van Orden. He said a lack of financial support from national groups hurt Pfaff’s campaign in 2022, while Van Orden continues to be successful in fundraising from state and national sources. Van Orden has not yet launched a formal reelection campaign.

“Democrats only need to flip a couple seats from red to blue in order to recapture the majority in the House of Representatives,” Chergosky said. “I think naturally at the national level, the Democrats might focus on what they perceive as the low-hanging fruit. They might perceive certain districts as more winnable than the 3rd district in Wisconsin.”

He said the district has a long history of being hard to predict, but it has leaned Republican in recent years. With the possibility of former President Donald Trump returning to the presidential ballot in 2024, Chergosky said GOP turnout could help Van Orden keep his seat regardless of who wins the Democratic primary.