EAU CLAIRE — After representing the 3rd Congressional District for nearly 25 years, retiring Rep. Ron Kind threw his support to a former staffer Thursday in the race to replace him.

Kind, D-La Crosse, announced his endorsement of Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff of Onalaska in a news conference at Haymarket Plaza in Eau Claire. Pfaff worked for more than 12 years on Kind’s congressional staff, advising the congressman on health care, economic development and education issues.

“Brad is a champion for farmers, small businesses, workers and western Wisconsin families,” said Kind, who announced in August he won’t seek reelection in 2022.

Kind also cited Pfaff’s deep roots in the district and background growing up on a La Crosse County dairy farm as reasons for his endorsement.

The announcement came the day after Eau Claire business owner and nonprofit founder Rebecca Cooke announced her candidacy as a Democrat for the 3rd District seat. Political newcomer Brett Knudsen of Holmen also has said he plans to run in the Democratic primary.

On the Republican side, Derrick Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL who lives in Prairie du Chien, has the support of former GOP President Donald Trump and is the lone Republican running for the seat, considered one of the most competitive in the country. Kind narrowly defeated Van Orden in 2020.

Pfaff also served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2009 to 2017 before Gov. Tony Evers appointed him to his Cabinet as state agriculture secretary. However, Republicans in the Senate effectively fired him by rejecting his confirmation. Pfaff went on to win a hard-fought state Senate election in 2020.

Kind, who has forged a reputation as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, expressed confidence that Pfaff, if elected, would continue that tradition in the battleground 3rd District, one of seven districts nationwide carried by a Democratic congressional representative and Trump.

“Brad has dedicated himself to finding that middle ground that can bring people together to solve problems and get things done back here at the local level,” Kind said, contrasting that civil, bipartisan approach with what he characterized as Van Orden’s combative style.

Kind labeled Van Orden an “insurrectionist” related to charges that the Republican was involved in actions related to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters hoping to overturn the results of the presidential election.

“He was on the wall. He was coordinating other insurrectionists’ movements that day on the Capitol, trying to overthrow our government,” Kind said of Van Orden. “That’s not the type of representative I feel that people want back home here that they can feel confident will do a good job of defending the institutions of democracy that are very much under assault these days.”

Van Orden’s campaign declined to comment Thursday on the allegations beyond an identical statement that it issued in response to both the Pfaff and Cooke candidacy announcements.

“Whoever is nominated to run as the Democrat in this race would undoubtedly be just another Pelosi-Approved rubber stamp for her radical agenda,” Van Orden said in the statement.

The partisan primary will be Aug. 9, followed by the general election on Nov. 8, 2022.