GOP's Leibham, Democrat Harris join Wisconsin race

  • Article by: M.L. JOHNSON
  • Associated Press
  • April 22, 2014 - 6:05 PM

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Republican state Sen. Joe Leibham and Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat, announced their runs for Congress on Tuesday, with both saying that their ability to work with others made them a good choice to replace Republican Rep. Tom Petri.

Leibham, who has long been mentioned as a possible successor to Petri, launched his campaign at his parents' home in Sheboygan, where he was joined by three state lawmakers, the chairman of the county Republican Party and dozens of friends and relatives. While Leibham described himself as a strong conservative, many in the party see him as more mainstream than the two other Republicans already in the race, state Sen. Glenn Grothman, of West Bend, and state Rep. Duey Stroebel, of Saukville.

State Rep. Paul Tittl showed up to lend his support, saying afterward that while he knows and likes all three GOP candidates, Leibham's enthusiasm and work ethic make him stand out. Tittl also praised Leibham as someone who can unite conservatives and moderates and understands the district's values, which he described as "people going to church on Sunday values, people working very hard values."

"And I think they want their elected officials to understand what they are going through," added Tittl, who lives in Manitowoc.

Leibham, 44, described himself as someone who could break the gridlock in Washington even as he works to cut taxes, reduce the nation's debt and foster economic growth. He pointed to Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans' efforts to cut spending and taxes in Wisconsin as the kind of thing that should be done in Washington and noted his backing of Walker's law eliminating most public employees' union rights.

Yet at the same time, Leibham said he was willing to work with Democrats at the national level.

"Collectively, we all share the same goal ... of working to restore the greatness of this nation," he said.

Harris, 58, said he would campaign on four key issues: funding Social Security, highway repairs, raising the minimum wage and college affordability. The first Democrat to join the race, he also said he has worked with Republicans and Democrats on his officially nonpartisan county board and would bring to Washington a willingness to negotiate.

"We've always been able to work together when you're looking for practical solutions. That's what you really need in Washington. You can't portray the other side as villains," said Harris, who was elected county executive in 2005.

Several other candidates from both parties have indicated they also are considering running for the seat after Petri announced earlier this month that he would not run for re-election. John Hiller, a confidant of Walker, said in an email Tuesday that he plans to make a decision within the next few days.

Given that the 6th District is "solidly Republican," it's likely that whoever wins the GOP primary will win the seat, said Jim Simmons, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He described the genial Leibham as an experienced campaigner who may be less likely than some other candidates to make an inappropriate remark that could harm his chances with voters.

"The chances for a Democrat might be best if you have an extremist Republican who says things that are embarrassing," Simmons said.

Grothman and Stroebel both said they liked and respected Leibham. Grothman said he thought voters would see him as the more conservative candidate, while Stroebel, who has served in the Assembly only since 2011, said he thought voters would want someone with private business experience and not another longtime politician.

Simmons said all the candidates will have to work hard and raise significant money to increase their name recognition in the sprawling eastern and central Wisconsin district.

"State legislators tend to have to have relatively low profile and might not even be known by the people who voted for them," he said.

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