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Obey's departure as unexpected as his career win

Strange events can have a long-range impact on government and politics. Consider the 42-year congressional career of U.S. Rep David Obey who won't seek re-election in November.

Strange events can have a long-range impact on government and politics. Consider the 42-year congressional career of U.S. Rep David Obey who won't seek re-election in November.

At 30, Obey scored an upset win in the spring of 1969 to fill the seat vacated by Mel Laird who became 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, the "Walter Cronkite of central Wisconsin."

Laird had represented the old 7th District for 16 years. He had succeeded Republican Reid Murray who held the post for 14 years. Laird had won his last term in the fall of 1968 by almost a 2-to-1 margin. 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 events contributed to an upset. 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 and they heard the stunning news, finished the morning milking, then went back to their houses, got their wives and went to town to vote. Obey ran radio ads calling attention to the decision.

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Obey 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, oft 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 bought a new dress for the expected inauguration of her husband in Washington.

Obey's district changed and expanded after the 1970 U.S. Census led to a reduction in Wisconsin's number of members of the House of Representatives. Much of the old 10th congressional district became part of the new 7th District.

Republican Alvin O'Konski had represented the old 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 that congressional hopefuls really have very few serious chances to get to Washington. That's why the field of candidates for Obey's job may grow significantly.

One final note on the Obey-Chilsen election, that Tuesday was April 1, known to many as April Fools Day.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
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