Steven Walters: Wisconsin’s Republicans continue to purge elders

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Steven Walters
Monday, April 21, 2014

On April 11, two 73-year-old white professional males announced their retirements.

So what? Nothing to see here? When septuagenarians move on, doesn’t it create opportunities for others?

But, in this case, the announcements rocked Wisconsin politics and continued the trend of younger GOP conservatives sidelining their political elders.

After serving in the Legislature for 44 years, Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah retired after he was secretly taped in a bar bragging about his ability to set up, and have wealthy friends fund, an illegal political action committee to attack his Democratic opponent.

Ellis suspects the secret taping was organized by conservatives who consider him too independent and too unwilling to blindly vote for anything proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. He refused to “walk behind the cart” once too often, Ellis said in a WisconsinEye interview.

Hours later, 6th District Congressman Tom Petri said 35 years in the U.S. House is enough, thank you. The Republican, Wisconsin’s second-longest-serving member of Congress, retired in the face of a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican, state Sen. Glenn Grothman.

Veteran UW-Madison political scientist Barry Burden offered this explanation:

“Talented, moderate and experienced legislators are leaving office. They are being replaced by younger, more ideological and more legislatively aggressive politicians. But it is not merely one taking over for the other. The veterans are being scared away by insurgents who are likely to defeat them in the Republican primary.”

More from Burden later.

In a related development, eight-term Republican Rep. Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake announced his retirement April 1.

Only a few years ago, Kestell was considered one of the most conservative Assembly Republicans. For example, Kestell said last week that Act 10 changes that limited collective bargaining by public employees and required them to pay more for pensions and health care should have passed “10 years ago,” instead of in 2011.

Kestell said he was “stunned” that his fellow Republicans passed “no confidence” motions in him and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen for their leadership on education issues over the last two years. The votes came at Republican congressional district meetings.

Chairs of Assembly and Senate education committees, Kestell and Olsen refused to go along with demands by new, more conservative Republicans that legislators—and not professional educators—decide which future Common Core Standards are taught school children.

And, in March, the new take-no-prisoners generation of conservative Republicans forced 32-year Republican Sen. Dale Schultz to retire. Schultz faced a primary challenge from two-term Republican Rep. Howard Marklein, who had spent more than a year raising funds to take out Schultz.

Now, more from political scientist Burden on the litmus-test purges of veteran Republicans by their political children and grandchildren.

“It mimics the debates among Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Burden.

“Speaker Boehner has to somehow manage the traditional mainstream Republicans and the new tea party Republicans simultaneously. One group thinks the GOP has become too conservative,” Burden added. “The other thinks it has not become conservative enough.

“Like Boehner, Gov. Walker and Republican legislative leaders will have their hands full trying to satisfy both wings of the party.”

So far, the trend is clear: Moderate Republicans, including Republicans willing to negotiate with Democrats, Republicans such as retiring 24-year Assembly veteran Rep. Dean Kaufert, who was elected mayor of Neenah, are being pushed to the sidelines.

Kaufert said in a WisconsinEye interview last week that conservatives recruited a primary opponent against him in 2012 because he voted against Act 10. But, Kaufert noted with a grin, he got 64 percent of the vote in that primary.

Kaufert said his Republican Party began electing “far right” candidates several years ago.

“I’m worried about where we’re headed,” Kaufert added. “There are some people who say, ‘We’re in charge. Let’s do it now. Let’s do it our way. Let’s get it all done.’ And that’s just not good government.”

Burden said Republicans seem to be the only ones discarding political elders with whom they disagree.

“Similar trends do not appear to be taking place in the state Democratic Party right now,” Burden said. “Retirements on the Democratic side are mostly about personal choices or dissatisfaction at being in the minority party in the Legislature—not about being pushed out.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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