Politics & Government
1:00 am
Fri August 8, 2014

Three GOP Lawmakers Battle for a Shot at Tom Petri’s House Seat

On Tuesday, voters in Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District will choose a Republican candidate in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Petri.

He’s retiring, after 35 years in the House.

Congressman Petri is retiring at the end of his term
Congressman Petri is retiring at the end of his term

Three Republicans hoping to win Petri’s seat are state lawmakers. They are Sens. Glenn Grothman of Campbellsport and Joe Leibham of Sheboygan, along with Rep. Duey Stroebel of Saukville.

Each describes himself as a conservative, who believes the federal government is failing the people. And each pledges to rein in spending, and grow the economy, including by loosening regulations.

So what are the distinctions? Sen. Grothman says he’s the candidate most likely to stick his neck out, to get things done.

“I’ve taken up a lot more controversial issues than my opponents, so I think if you want a fighter in Washington, I’m the clear choice,” Grothman says.

Grothman says he’s been the most vocal on creating a pro-business environment and cutting welfare.

On the other hand, Sen. Leibham says he excels at generating consensus. He says as a legislator, he’s promoted strong conservative values, knowing not everyone shares them.

“(I’m) always willing to listen and to hear the other side of the argument and work to try to bring people together,” Leibham says.

And Rep. Stroebel points out he’s been in office only a few years, compared to the longtime GOP senators.

“I’m an outsider, I’m a businessman, I come from the private sector, and I really bring a different way of thinking,” Stroebel says.

Stroebel says as a businessman, he knows how to balance budgets and create jobs.

There’s also a long-shot candidate in the race: Tom Denow, a political newcomer. He says he’s way behind in fundraising – and that’s a good thing.

“I don’t have a bunch of people running and giving me money. I’m not tied down by them, I can make decisions from the people, and not from people that are giving me that money,” Denow says.

The well-funded candidates have been pouring money into campaign ads, in an effort to set themselves apart. But that’s been tough, according to Chris Murray of the Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington D.C.

“If you look at their voting records in the Legislature, they’re all probably pretty much identical, so it’s going to be hard for them to distinguish themselves through their voting records,” Murray says.

Murray believes the biggest differences are in style, not substance.

“If you were to ask them their positions on things like taxes and Common Core and some of these other issues right now, the details of their positions are not going to vary a whole lot, but it’s going to be how they’re talking about them and how they are presenting themselves,” Murray says.

In other words, presenting themselves either as willing to compromise – or refusing to back down.

Murray has plotted the lawmakers’ records on a conservative spectrum.

“From what I’ve been able to ascertain, if we were to go kind of closest to Petri, and then go right, I would say Leibham probably is the most moderate, followed by Stroebel, followed by Grothman being the furthest to the right,” Murray says.

“In the primary right now, there’s kind of a race (for) who can establish themselves as most conservative,” says Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari. “One of the things that went on in the race was there was kind of a contest for who could sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax petition first. There’s been a lot of positioning about who would be the most pro-life.”

Azari says it’s no surprise to find these Republican House candidates grabbing onto the right side of the GOP spectrum. She says in midterm elections, the party opposing the president often pushes back, by backing far away from the center.

“I think that there’s a strain of voters and a strain of donors, and a strain of legislators as a result, for whom this has become their central reason for being in politics, to make conservative stands.”

Azari says there’s a chance the winner of Tuesday’s primary will nudge toward the center, heading into the general election, in hopes of luring more moderate voters. Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary will face Democratic Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris in November.

But Chris Murray of the Les Aspin Center says the Republican will likely have an edge – regardless of strategy. He says Wisconsin’s 6th District House seat has been in the hands of Democrats for just two of the last 75 years.