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This One Congressional Race Epitomizes the GOP's Increasing Extremism

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There’s been so much talk of late about the transformation of the Republican Party over the course of the last few decades that it is easy to become inured to reports of ideologically extreme new arrivals in the party’s ranks. After a while, the latest pronouncements of Michele Bachmann or Steve King fail to impress.

But what is going on right now in Wisconsin’s Sixth Congressional District is truly historic, and demands more attention.

The district, northwest of Milwaukee, has been represented for nearly half a century by only two men, both of whom were standard bearers for a brand of moderate Republicanism that has all but vanished from the landscape. The latter of the two, Tom Petri, is retiring after 35 years in office, and the Republican primary earlier this month to replace him was won, very narrowly, by Glenn Grothman, a proudly polarizing state senator (pictured above) considered by many to be the most radically conservative member of the Wisconsin legislature. The seat is solidly Republican and the Democratic challenger had only $42,000 in his account as of late July, so odds are that Grothman will take over for Petri in January and thereby pull off one of the most dramatic discontinuities in the annals of Congress.

The seat was won in 1966 by Bill Steiger, who at age 28 was the youngest member of the House and a highly promising prospect for the still-vigorous moderate wing of the GOP. As Geoffrey Kabaservice recounts in his 2012 book Rule and Ruin, the definitive account of the decline of moderate Republicanism, Steiger as a state legislator had sponsored Wisconsin’s first open-housing law and set up summer schools for the children of migrant laborers, and in his first years in Washington, he “urged the GOP to address the causes of urban problems, to modernize government machinery on all levels, and to enlist the brain-power of the academic community.” Steiger was part of a group of House Republicans who set out to visit college campuses in the late sixties to get a better understanding of the roiling student unrest—a task in which he was aided by his assistant, a University of Wisconsin graduate student named Richard Cheney (yes, that one), who, at age 28, was “thoughtful, open-minded, and distinctly moderate,” writes Kabaservice. (While working for Steiger, Cheney even had some friends on the radical fringes of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society.) Steiger went on to become the moving force behind one of the major progressive advances of the Nixon administrations: the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. “He believed that business and industry were not adequately protecting workers,” writes Kabaservice.

In late 1978, Steiger—a diabetic—died of a heart attack at age 40. He was replaced by Petri, whose moderate credentials were if anything even stronger. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1960s and later in the decade, he had been a leading member of the Ripon Society, the organization founded in 1962 to advance the cause of moderate Republicanism against the rising tide of Sun Belt conservatism (it was named after the town in Wisconsin where the GOP was founded in 1854—a town that, as it happens, is in the Sixth Congressional District.) Petri belonged to the NAACP, joined the Peace Corps and engaged in a sit-in at a Woolworth’s to protest segregation at its southern stores. Petri even went on William F. Buckley’s television program, “The Firing Line,” in 1969 to spar with the pugnacious conservative. Challenged by Buckley to distinguish the Ripon Society’s program from New Deal liberalism, Petri countered, “We’ve felt that the role of government should be to enlighten self-interest in the society, to be a systems manager for the people rather than trying to do everything itself.” Petri went on to assume a lower profile than Steiger had, perhaps partly because the party’s rightward shift in the 1980s and since left him increasingly isolated. He fought hard for federal funding for Wisconsin highways, water-infrastructure projects, and farmers; he got notice when he voted against President Bush’s Iraq surge; and he got less than 64 percent of the vote in his district only once in the past 16 elections, in 1992.

But soon after Grothman announced his primary challenge earlier this year, saying Petri hadn’t done enough to fight a growing “culture of dependency” (an especially brazen move given that Grothman did not even reside in the district at the time), Petri decided it was time to retire. Finishing a very close second to Grothman in this month's primary was another state senator, Joe Leibham, while state assemblyman Duey Stroebel (great name!) came in third. Leibham and Stroebel are both well to Petri’s right, but Grothman far outflanks them all. As Ben Jacobs summarized in The Daily Beast:

A short list of Grothman’s most controversial moments would include his attack on Kwanzaa as an anti-Christian attempt by “white shove [the holiday] down black people’s throats in an effort to divide Americans,” his opposition to equal pay for women, his belief that Martin Luther King Jr. Day shouldn’t be a holiday, and his advocacy for a seven-day workweek. That doesn’t even touch on his forays into social issues, like attacking Planned Parenthood as racist or when, explaining his opposition to a law to protect gay students from bullying, he recalled his high school years with nostalgia by saying, “Homosexuality was not on anybody’s radar and that’s a good thing.” Most recently, Grothman attacked Secretary of State John Kerry for upsetting God. Kerry’s apparent offense was to condemn an anti-gay law passed in Uganda that made homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison.

How to explain that a district went from being represented for nearly five decades by Steiger and Petri to now being on the verge of Glenn Grothman? There is the nationwide shift in the party that has seen liberal Northern Republicans dwindle to an all-but extinct breed (one of the last members of the species, Jim Jeffords, left the party a decade before he died, last week.) But exacerbating that shift in Wisconsin has been a local dynamic that I described in a June cover story about the rise of the state’s governor, Scott Walker, and that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert laid out a few weeks earlier in a striking series of articles. Over the past few decades, the suburbs of Milwaukee have developed into a conservative bastion that is far more monolithically white and Republican than the suburbs of other northern cities, a singularity that, I argued, has something to do with the unusual lag in the migration of African-Americans to Milwaukee.

This deep-red territory is also defined by its remarkably strong local conservative-talk radio culture, with two hosts who have commanded loyal audiences for several decades now. And just as Scott Walker was adept at using those shows to build his base, Grothman was adept at using them to rise in the ranks. Back in 2005, he won a promotion from the state assembly to the state Senate by going on the shows at every chance he could to attack the incumbent Republican senator, Mary Panzer, as insufficiently conservative. Even Leibham, the second-place finisher this month, told me that he “grew up listening” to both hosts, Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes, and still catches them both every day.

I chatted with both Grothman and Petri at the state Republican convention in Milwaukee, after Petri had announced his retirement. Grothman was his characteristically intense, prickly self—he is no happy warrior, but rather the sort of ideological battler who is so intent on the endless war that he can barely be troubled to take the edge off. He defended the state’s new voting restrictions, which he has championed.

Petri was gracious, and declined to be drawn into a discussion of the transformation of his party, though when I asked about Sykes and Belling, he said flatly, “I’ve never listened to any of them.” But it was hard to miss the subtext in his short farewell speech to the convention. “Today, there are many of us from all different backgrounds. We should embrace the diversity and focus on the core values we stand for as Republicans,” he said. “This is not the conservative party convention, or the libertarian party convention or the moderate party convention. This is the Republican Party convention. We have individuals from all part of the political spectrum here as Republicans.”

The comments were a mere blip in the proceedings, which included a drawn-out debate over whether to approve platform language threatening nullification and even secession against the Obama administration (these lost, though not by all that much) and another debate over whether to formally censure two Republican senators who supported the Common Core curriculum (this passed, handily).

There remains a chance that the Democratic nominee for the Sixth District, Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, will get just enough votes from Republicans concerned about Grothman to win the district, but as the Journal Sentinel’s Gilbert notes, ticket-splitting in Wisconsin has become increasingly rare. If anything, Scott Walker’s proven ability to drive Republican turnout in the Milwaukee suburbs to the highest levels in the country will only help Grothman. (In GOP-led redistricting, the Sixth has picked up more of those blood-red Milwaukee suburbs, thus making it more Republican—Mitt Romney won it by six percentage points in 2012.)

So unless Harris can pick up a sizable share of Walker voters, Glenn Grothman is coming to Washington—bringing his condemnations of Kwanzaa and MLK Day to the same office held for several decades by a Republican who once belonged to the NAACP and engaged in a sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter. What was it again that the chairman of the Republican National Committee, another Wisconsinite, said that the GOP needed to do? Ah yes. The party should “develop a program designed to educate Republicans on the importance of developing and tailoring a message that is non-inflammatory and inclusive to all.” If that was the grand plan forward, well, the Grand Old Party is going backward in the place where it was born.