Politics & Government
1:00 am
Tue September 2, 2014

Politics and Personalities Differ Dramatically in Race for Wisconsin's Open House Seat

The only open house seat in Wisconsin this fall is in the 6th Congressional District, north of Milwaukee. Longtime U.S. Rep. Tom Petri is retiring from the post.

Mark Harris and Glen Grothman
Mark Harris and Glen Grothman

Petri is one of the Republicans who’s kept the seat in GOP hands for all but two of the last 75 years.

Because of the district’s make-up, Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman is the presumed front-runner. He’s served in the Legislature for 20 years, and says he feels compelled to move on.

“We have a lot of problems on a national level that cannot be corrected on the state level, and both parties right now are not doing a serious job of addressing those problems,” Grothman says.

Grothman says some of the problems threaten to sink the country, such as “a welfare system that is out of control, leading to dependency, and causing the breakdown of the American family” and the fact that the nation is “borrowing 20 percent of the federal budget.” Grothman says borrowing that much money “results in the erosion of the value of the dollar.”

A different pair of challenges tops the agenda of Mark Harris, the Democrat in the race.

“One, is that I want Social Security to remain in its current form for both current retirees and future retirees,” Harris says.

Harris says another priority is hiking the minimum wage.

“I think it should be indexed at 42 percent of the prior year’s average hourly wage, and that way we can adjust it on a one-time basis, and it will then continue to adjust, so that if other hourly wages were rising, the minimum wage would rise as well,” Harris says.

Harris is Winnebago County executive and a former mayor of Oshkosh. He touts the experienced he gained, managing local budgets. Harris calls himself a fiscally conservative Democrat, and the logical successor to Congressman Tom Petri.

“Tom was always a soft-spoken, thoughtful moderate, and the district liked him and returned him to office over and over again, and I actually think that I’m closer to the personality and philosophies of Tom Petri than Glenn Grothman is,” Harris says.

Grothman probably would agree. He even jumped in to challenge Petri before the congressman announced he was retiring. Grothman believes voters are ready for a change, and appreciate his legislative record. It includes cutting taxes for agriculture and manufacturers, and reining in damages in asbestos lawsuits.

“I have been willing to tackle the tough issues, so I think if you want a fighter in Washington, and somebody who’s going to get something done – whether you look at our past record, or what we promise to do in the future -- I’m the clear choice,” Grothman says.

Grothman says he’d even fight fellow House Republicans if they don’t address problems, and “embarrass them into action.” The state senator is known for that outspoken nature, and for not worrying about being politically correct. He’s made controversial comments on such topics as Kwanzaa, homosexuality and why men earn more than women.

Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari says that style can repel some, while attracting others.

“Grothman has a really distinctive political personality. That can be an advantage. He really believes what he believes and is straightforward, and people do gravitate toward that,” Azari says.

The style of Grothman’s opponent, Mark Harris, also could attract voters, according to Jeff Mayers of WisPolitics.com.

“He’s trying to set himself up as more of a bipartisan figure, somebody who can be the natural successor to Petri. That could be a good tactic. But he has to be able to communicate the message to a lot of people,” Mayers says.

Mayers says the downside for Harris is that he doesn’t have a lot of money to buy TV and radio ads. Grothman has raised about five times more.

Libertarian Gus Fahrendorf also is in the race.

Whichever party ends up disappointed in November, won’t have to live with the results for long. House terms last only two years, and Jeff Mayers says party leaders are already considering their next move. He says the best time to try to unseat a congressman is after the first term.