WASHINGTON-After 41 years in Congress, David Obey, the powerful chair of the Appropriations Committee, announced his retirement Wednesday, sending shock waves through Democratic Washington. Obey, a confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said he was "bone-tired," wearied by political battles as well as the deaths of longtime lawmakers Charlie Wilson and John Murtha.
As chair of Appropriations, Obey brought money back to his district and would likely have won reelection, but he faced voter backlash for introducing the $787 billion stimulus plan and overseeing the budget with the largest deficit in the country's history.
The announcement also reverberated throughout Obey's district in Wisconsin, where the top Republican challenger, Sean Duffy-who wasn't born when Obey first took office-could hardly believe his opponent was retiring.
"Is this a prank call?" Duffy asked when a Politico reporter phoned him and told him the news on Wednesday. At the time, local Democrats didn't even know about Obey's decision: Marathon County GOP chair John M. Yackel broke the news to them, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The media spotlight turned immediately to Duffy as the potential heir to Obey's seat, but mainly because no Democrat has yet materialized to run. Duffy does have a head start in fundraising as well as in campaigning, but the 7th District voted 55 percent for President Obama, so a good Democratic candidate has a chance to win. "There isn't a snowball's chance in Hades" that a Republican would win the district, Obey said upon announcing his retirement.
Duffy, 38, is the kind of young, non-establishment Republican the party has recruited lately. He currently serves as district attorney in Ashland County and formerly competed as a lumberjack, winning three world championships. He's also been a commentator for ESPN's Great Outdoor Games. In 1997 he appeared on MTV's reality show The Real World, a program his wife, Rachel, starred in, too, though in a different season. He has six children, one just born in April.
Duffy's Facebook page has about 4,800 fans, while Obey's has about 670 fans. Obey didn't put up a campaign site until March. Duffy uses Twitter, too, and social media has projected him into the national spotlight.
According to Duffy, he garnered more donations last quarter than any Obey challenger has in an entire campaign. The most recent filing through March 31 shows Duffy with about $340,000 cash on hand-Obey still had about $1 million more. Duffy drew donations from across the country, especially when Sarah Palin endorsed him in February. In April, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked his supporters to vote online for their favorite candidate among the 22 he had endorsed: Duffy won.
Upon announcing his retirement, the often gruff and plain-speaking Obey made several comments that seemed directed at Duffy. He said the district shouldn't vote in someone who just "poses as a fresh face" or has an "actor's ability to hide the facts."
Obey's 2008 challenger, Dan Mielke, will face off with Duffy in the Republican primary, set for September.