By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010; A03
CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. -- Sean Duffy is what happens when reality TV meets congressional politics in the north woods of Wisconsin. He is a lumberjack athlete who has been both a county district attorney and a star of MTV's "Real World." Now he is trying hard to become the next Scott Brown.
Like Brown, the Republican who stunned Democrats last year by winning the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, Duffy is an upstart conservative. He is running for the House seat of retiring Rep. David R. Obey, held by the powerful liberal Democrat for 41 years.
In his rural district, Duffy is becoming a kind of celebrity candidate. One woman, who recently came to hear Duffy's stump speech and pose for a photo with him, giggled and said she had fixed her hair for the occasion.
Others are just catching wind of the tree-climbing 38-year-old's nightclubbing, woman-chasing antics on the 1997 Boston season of "The Real World." There's a video of Duffy on YouTube dancing on a pool table in boxer shorts while drinking beer.
"I was young," he explained to voters recently at Ojibwa Golf and Bowl, a Chippewa Falls hangout. "They edit in things. I didn't have any kids yet. If you want to know my character, look at the kids I've raised. All I can do is tell you this is what I've done. This is where I've been. This is where I stand."
Duffy's explanations have become more crucial lately as more eyes turn to his campaign. His chances of winning were rated close to zilch when he entered the race last year to challenge Obey. Now, as the anti-incumbent wave continues to fuel the midterm elections, he is considered a contender for the open seat. He has attracted the kind of big money and big-name endorsements from national GOP figures that he did not expect at the start of the race.
Duffy is expected to win a primary in September against Dan Mielke, a farmer and self-declared "tea party" candidate who had previously challenged Obey and lost. Mielke is trying to make hay of the wilder Duffy moments caught on tape by MTV, saying they reflect "Hollywood" values. But political observers predict that Duffy, who has raised more than $600,000, will emerge from the primary to challenge state Sen. Julie Lassa, the expected Democratic nominee.
Duffy would rather not get into the details of the reality show, saying it doesn't reflect who he is now. But he admits that "The Real World" played an important role in his life. Through MTV he met his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, a conservative Latina from Arizona who appeared on the third season of the series, in San Francisco, in 1994. Their courtship and canoodling -- during their time on MTV's "Road Rules: All Stars" -- was captured on camera.
They continued their minor celebrity status after the show, appearing in "The Wedding Video," a movie-length spoof of reality television produced by another "Real World" alum. Joining in the low-budget mockumentary about two men getting married was a spur-of-the-moment decision that Duffy tells Wisconsin voters that he wouldn't make today.
Yet, the complications of a life lived in "reality" television has had more pluses than minuses for the aspiring congressman. Duffy was cast on MTV as the handsome Midwestern conservative in a diverse household of young adults. The partying came with the territory. So did a cachet that has helped bring Duffy the attention and support of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which can hardly hide its glee at the fresh face.
Duffy minimizes the effect that "The Real World" has had on his political career. On the campaign trail, he plays up the outlines of his life now, which is much more sedate. He is a champion lumberjack, and at one point he held the world-record time for pole climbing. He and Rachel, who has been a recurring guest host of "The View" and recently wrote a book about being a happy stay-at-home mom, have six children. In the beginning, the run for Congress was a protest against big government and Washington excesses, he said.
"Most people told me I was crazy," said Duffy, a self-described "pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage, pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment" candidate in a district that President Obama won by 14 points and that has consistently backed Obey.
Against big odds, Duffy had a few good turns -- including lots of national ink when Sarah Palin endorsed him on the anniversary of the passage of the $787 billion federal stimulus package, of which Obey was the lead author. The lumberjack looked prescient rather than crazy when Obey decided last month not to run for reelection, saying he was "bone tired." Now Duffy finds himself in a race rated by political arbiters as a tossup.
"With Obey in the race, he basically had no chance," said Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Now, he added, Duffy "is running in a middle-of-the road Democratic district, but he has a shot."
The nature of reality television, with cameras trained on its subjects 24 hours a day, breeds a comfort with the spotlight that seems to aid Duffy, who is telegenic and rugged. His campaign material shows him in a flannel lumberjack shirt holding one of his daughters.
Other reality-TV celebs have similarly taken their turn at campaigning this cycle. Kevin Powell -- from the first "Real World," in 1992 -- has twice lost elections in New York's 10th District and is running again this year. Will Mega of CBS's "Big Brother" lost in the Democratic primary for a seat in Pennsylvania's state House.
Duffy's campaign is focused on themes familiar among the cadre of novice Republican candidates running this year -- fiscal conservatism and a disdain for Washington. "Right now our government owes $13 trillion in national debt," Duffy told nine tavern and bar owners at a meeting in a smoky bar on the banks of Chippewa River. "That's $40,000 for every man, woman and child."
In fact, he sounds a lot like Brown in Massachusetts, who had his own history of celebrity -- posing nude in Cosmopolitan magazine in his youth. Duffy is hoping his own risque flirtation with fame won't hold him back.
"I never thought I would run for Congress," he said at the bowling alley. "If you look back at a certain reality TV show, you know that."