EAU CLAIRE, Wisconsin — It takes a particular kind of person to run for a House seat, lose, then try again the following election cycle. It also takes a particular kind of person to laugh off the press referring to you as a barrel-chested freedom-fighting frogman in your first run, then two years later calling you the plaid-clad inflation-fighting grandpa.
Congressman-elect and former Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden (R) is that particular kind of person.
“You know what? It’s a function of age and maturity that I fully accept it,” he said. “I think it’s awesome. I’m smiling really big right now.” Van Orden was one of several new Republican House members who helped the GOP clinch the majority last week, albeit by a much narrower margin than anyone imagined.
The retired Navy SEAL flipped a House seat here in rural Wisconsin that has been held by Democratic Rep. Ron Kind for 13 terms. Kind decided last year not to seek reelection.
Van Orden, who attended the Jan. 6 rally but wrote in an essay that he left almost immediately when he saw the event “dissolving into one of the most tragic incidents in the history of our nation,” ran a tireless campaign on the strengths he brings from his two decades in the military, never leaving one stone unturned on the trail. He lost his last race against Kind by 2 1/2 points but won this time by 4.
“Some local political guy said of our race there is no sugarcoating it: Republicans underperformed,” he said in an interview. “Well, no Republican in the history of the 3rd Congressional District got more than 51% of the vote, and we got 52%. We performed as our model predicted. The folks in the third just aren’t used to voting for a Republican yet, and they’re going to get used to it because they’re going to see that I’m going to do exactly what I said I’m going to do. I’ll reach out to everybody that’s there.”
This race was an exhausting sprint across rolling farm fields and small towns across Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District. It seemed there was hardly a farm, machine shop, dairy, or small town that Van Orden didn’t visit.
Van Orden said the only people he is accountable to are the ones in his district.
“I fully recognize that 48% of the district did not vote for me,” he said. “In all the interviews I’ve been doing, I’m saying I’ll represent those 48% just as well as I do the 52% that did vote for me because we have to get back to the place where we’re representing our constituents, regardless of whether or not they’re carrying a sign for you in a parade; they’re still Americans, they’re still residents of the 3rd Congressional District, and it’s my duty to represent them the best that I can. That simple.”
Born in abject poverty, Van Orden dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and was without purpose until he joined the Navy at the age of 18. “I got a GED in the service,” he said. “I wound up serving for 26 years, over 21 of those as a Navy SEAL. I did eight deployments of six months or longer, including five to combat. I got my undergraduate degree at 44, and I got accepted to law school at 50. Sara Jane and I have been married for over 29 years, have four children and eight grandchildren,” he says, encapsulating a life of service in a few short sentences.
The 3rd District is arguably one of the most beautiful expanses in Wisconsin. It includes the Driftless or Coulee Region, and Van Orden loves to brag about it. “Imagine the most beautiful place in the world, and then multiply it times two. We have the largest contiguous section of the Mississippi River of any congressional district in the country, which is the Driftless region, which was created when the glacier didn’t get that far down. There is corn, beans, alfalfa, carrots, and potatoes are grown there as well as cranberries. It’s really just this endless series of bucolic pastures of very hardworking, productive Americans. It really is. That sounds like a joke that it’s the most beautiful place in the world, but it is. I know that because I’ve lived on five of the seven continents.”
Van Orden said voters told him their biggest concerns going into Election Day were the three Gs — “gas, groceries, and grandkids.”
“People cannot afford the first two, and they are worried about the future for the third,” he said. “They also said they were worried about this open border that has led to the fentanyl scourge that’s ruining America as well as crime, which is rampant everywhere.”
He also pointed to parents’ deep concerns about what their children are being taught in school. “The public education system in America is running away with things that don’t comport with what Americans see as our normal values,” he said. “When you have the FBI investigating parents that have gone to school board meetings, and using the same code that they use for domestic terrorists to investigate them, that’s a real problem.”
Van Orden said the first person who should have a say in their child’s education is the parent. He said once this new Congress is sworn in, voters need to know that Republicans heard their concerns and should give as much attention to fixing those problems as they do to investigations into Hunter Biden‘s laptop.
“We have to understand and remember that we have a huge conference, and all of these committees have very specific purposes; we can do all these things simultaneously, and we can do many things at the same time,” he said.
Van Orden said he wants to be on the agriculture committee. “The last congressperson from the state of Wisconsin to sit on the agriculture committee was 26 years ago,” he said. “That is far too long for a state that depends so much on agriculture.”