By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

The 7th Congressional District will be represented by a Republican for the first time in four decades, part of a national tide of support that gave the GOP control of the U.S. House Tuesday.

Sean Duffy, the former district attorney for Ashland County, led state Sen. Julie Lassa with 107,735 votes to 90,733 with 85 percent of precincts reporting as the Daily Herald went to press. The Associated Press and other major news outlets called the race in favor of Duffy based on those unofficial results.

The contest to replace Dave Obey, who has represented the 7th Congressional District since 1969, became one of Wisconsin’s most contentious and expensive this year.

“What a great night in Wisconsin,” Duffy cried as he took the stage at a victory party in Wausau shortly before midnight to thank supporters.

Lassa conceded the race at about 12:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Duffy, a 39-year-old from Hayward, began his campaign in July 2009, attacking Obey for crafting the stimulus bill that has been in the crosshairs of Republican candidates across the country.

But Obey’s surprise decision not to run for re-election in May propelled Lassa, a 40-year-old from Stevens Point, into the race. Lassa began her campaign about 10 months after her Republican opponent and struggled to overcome Duffy’s momentum in fundraising and on-the-ground organization.

She trailed in every independent poll in the race, and an internal poll released by her campaign at the end of September also showed Duffy ahead.

Duffy maintained a laser focus on cutting government spending and opposition to the stimulus package, transmitting the message through folksy ads featuring the former reality show star chopping wood in a callback to his participation in lumberjack competitions.

While Lassa spent most of the evening at home watching the returns come in with family, she made a statement to supporters at the Portage County Democratic Party headquarters in Stevens Point just after The AP called the race for Duffy at 11 p.m.

“There are 60 percent of votes left to be counted in Portage County and 50 percent in Marathon County,” Lassa said. “We believe every vote should be counted.”

The 7th District race was one of the most expensive nationwide in a year packed with multimillion-dollar races. The $3.5 million reported in outside spending in the 7th District was second only to the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin and is ranked in the top 25 for spending in congressional races nationally by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Nearly every voter leaving the polls on Tuesday complained about those ads and the often negative tone that the campaign and outside ads took.

“It’s hard to even know how to feel in this race,” Leroy Carroll, a 24-year-old bartender from Wausau, said before voting. “There was a lot of mud-slinging in those ads. I’d rather see somebody say ‘This is my plan.'”

But Duffy’s core message — cutting the national deficit, though he was nonspecific about how until August — seemed to break through that advertising noise.

Alan Sexter, a 46-year-old quantitative analyst from Wausau, said he voted for Duffy out of concern for his nephews.

“I’m really concerned about excess spending because it’s money we can’t afford,” Sexter said after voting at Marathon Park in Wausau. “My 19- and 21-year-old nephews are the ones that will have to pay for that.”

— Cara Spoto of Gannett Central Wisconsin contributed to this story.