Matt Pommer: Republican moves shaking up state politics

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, April 20, 2014

Two retiring veteran Republican politicians are creating a potential conservative shift in the state’s 2014 election.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Petri, 73, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1979, announced he won’t seek re-election. His decision came after Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the assistant state Senate majority leader, said he’d challenge Petri and seek the GOP nomination for the seat.

State Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, 73, announced he won’t seek re-election after serving 44 years in the Legislature. His decision came after a conservative group released an audio clip of Ellis talking in a bar about a campaign tactic that apparently would violate campaign finance law.

Both men are regarded as moderates. Ellis was a champion of campaign finance reform, a topic that attracted little Republican support in recent decades. He also has an independent streak as a legislator who wouldn’t roll over for caucus positions until his questions were answered.

Petri won his congressional seat in a special election in 1979 after the death of U.S. Rep. William Steiger. After his election, Petri made a reputation as a moderate in Washington, a diminishing breed in the current Republican Party. Indeed, he was too moderate for Republicans who passed over his seniority in 2000 to select more conservative lawmakers for key committee chairmanships.

After that happened, Petri complained about a purge of moderates from GOP leadership roles. Conservatives have stepped up that effort in primary elections across the country since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

Petri’s decision will certainly trigger a hotly contested primary this summer. Ambitious politicians get few real opportunities to be elected to Congress. Grothman is in the middle of a four-year term in the state Senate. He’ll have his state Senate seat even if he isn’t elected to Congress.

Ellis was caught on a secret recording at a downtown Madison bar frequented by politicians and lobbyists. Ellis, who often is full of verbal bluster, said he was “putting together my own Super PAC” in an effort to win re-election. The senator was facing his first serious challenge in many years in November.

Ellis is the second moderate Republican state senator who decided against seeking another term. Earlier, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, announced he’s retiring after the current term. He has served in the Legislature since 1983.

Schultz, 60, also was facing a conservative opponent this fall. Schultz had drawn the ire of Republicans for opposing Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to dismantle public-employee unions. He was the only senator to oppose Walker, although Ellis had privately challenged the Walker administration’s anti-union efforts.

A significant shift also is coming in Democratic ranks in the state Senate. Among those retiring after the current legislative terms are Democrats Tim Cullen of Janesville, Bob Jauch of Poplar and John Lehman of Racine. Cullen is 70, while both Jauch and Lehman are 68.

Lehman had little hope for re-election; his district had been gerrymandered into a solid GOP district by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Jauch is completing 32 years in the Legislature, and Cullen has been both a Democratic Senate majority leader and a cabinet member for Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. They are from a generation when compromise was not a dirty word in the state Capitol.

The departure of so many veteran senators will produce a younger and less-experienced state Senate. Many suggest new younger members will push Republicans to the far right and Democrats to an even more liberal stance.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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