Chad Lee, left, meets with a reporter Tuesday night at the Esquire Club.
It was the closest big race of the night, which meant that it dragged on the longest. It wasn't until 11:45 p.m. that Chad Lee stood in front of a giant U.S. flag at the Esquire Club in Madison and declared victory over his GOP primary opponent, Peter Theron. He committed himself to this same outcome in his quixotic bid for Congress -- the next, much harder part of which will be bumping off a six-term Democratic incumbent.
"I'm Chad Lee and I'm and running to defeat Tammy Baldwin," the 27-year-old contender told a somewhat tired assemblage of supporters and media. "We need to get the Second District back on path."
That's what my notes say, anyway. It strikes me now as an odd turn of phrase. Would he really say "back on path" and not "back on track"? And if so, did I have something to do with that?
Let's start at the beginning.
I arrive at the Esquire at 8 p.m., just as the polls have closed. Lee is there and I meet him, for the first time. People often refer to him as handsome and charismatic. He certainly is good looking, but his charisma is more apparent from what others say about him than anything I see him do or say.
Chad Lee has supporters to die for -- earnest, serious-minded people who believe in him absolutely. If there wasn't a charismatic candidate for them to devote themselves to, they would have to invent one.
All total, throughout the night, the event draws about 100 people. They quickly devour the spread of snacks laid out for them: Meatballs, chips, veggies, cold cuts, cheese and crackers. Talk about your grand old parties! Democrats usually just put out bowls of popcorn.
Lee's campaign spokesperson, Ashton Kirsch, like everyone on his team a volunteer, is a political science student and entrepreneur (he runs a mock casino business in the Dells). He's not looking for some payoff, like a job in Washington, but admits his interest in the race is nonetheless "selfish." He mentions his 20-month-old little girl, saying "I'm doing it for her."
Kirsch's sincerity is obvious and, he attests, not uncommon among Lee's supporters. "This is really our passion," he says of the bunch. "This is what we care about and this is the direction we want our country going."
Lee's campaign manager and treasurer is Nate Johnson, a 31-year-old lawyer in Mt. Horeb, where Lee runs a small house-cleaning business. He says Lee "asked me if I'd come on and help him" and he answered the call.
Johnson sees a need for "radical spending cuts" to get the nation back on track er, path. "Spending's out of control in Washington," he says, clucking about the deficit. He's so against spending that he criticizes Baldwin for supporting a program funded entirely by closing tax loopholes. It's still spending, no matter how you slice it.
Jay Timmerman, 41, a Middleton resident, volunteers for Lee because he's "between jobs right now" and wants to have something to put on his resume. He, too, believes in Lee and says his stint "might turn into a job," perhaps as a congressional staffer. Timmerman has a degree in history and has worked in the "supermarket retail industry." He serves the campaign as "an all-around go-fer."
Jeanne Lenerz, has always been interested in politics but this is her first campaign. The 31-year-old Sauk City resident serves as Lee's volunteer office manager, working out of an office in Middleton. She calls Lee "a very down-to-Earth person" and sees the campaign as something of a movement: "People are very fed up with how politics have been during Tammy's 12 years."
Debi Lee, Chad's mother, one of a large number of family members who attended the event, assures me that Chad, one of six children, was "a joy to raise, to be honest with you. Never gave me an ounce of trouble. Always stuck to his guns for his beliefs."
When Chad was very young, his mother says, he was very shy. And so his father would make him pay the bill at restaurants, so he'd have to interact with others. "It definitely helped." Indeed, Chad became a "people person" who often had friends waiting for him when he came home from school. And now, past his stint as a member of a Christian rock band, he's running for Congress. "Did we create a monster?" she asks. We both laugh.
The returns trickle in throughout the night, most showing Lee with a slight lead, which is how he ended up winning. One of the people I talk to mentions the need for infrastructure investment, including high-speed rail, to get the economy back on path. This supporter is mystified that some Republicans, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, have come out against the federal government's plan to spend more than $800 million to bring high-speed rail to Wisconsin, linking Madison to Milwaukee and beyond.
I ask about Lee's position is on rail, and the supporter doesn't know. Neither does spokesperson Kirsch or other staffers I talk to. But when Scott Walker appears on the Esquire's television screens to disparage "the boondoggle high-speed train," the crowd cheers.
Lee, who has been coming and going throughout the night, comes into the room to watch the returns around 11:30. I ask if he has time for a question, and he begs off. But when I see him talking at length to another reporter I ask again, and he agrees. My question is simple: "What is your position on high-high-speed rail?"
"I don't think we should spend money we don't have," he tells me.
What does that mean? If elected, will Lee join Walker in working to get the federal government not to spend $800 million on high-speed rail in Wisconsin? Nonanswers Lee, "It means right now the federal government doesn't have money to spend."
So would he work to kill the train or not? "My number-one priority is balancing the budget," he says. "We should not spend money you don't have."
An Esquire patron who has wandered into the room recognizes that Lee is evading the question and begins to needle him. "Are you saying you're not going to take it?" he demands. Lee says things would be different "when we can get out of the red."
The bar patron is angered by this. "What about now?" he says. "When would you take it and when wouldn't you?" It's obvious that deficit spending is not going to be a thing of the past anytime soon. That being the case, would Lee try to get the feds to not build a high-speed line?
Lee insists he's answered the question several times, and squirms away, having not answered it once. Moments later, he's throwing red meat to his adoring supporters: "We've got to get spending under control and we are taxed enough."
Things, he promises, will be different once Tammy Baldwin is defeated. "We will be represented finally, after 12 years of nonexistent representation."
His supporters can hardly wait.