MILWAUKEE — U.S. Rep. Tom Petri has represented east-central Wisconsin for 35 years, but he could face his first serious electoral contest in decades with Thursday's announcement that a fellow Republican, state Sen. Glenn Grothman, plans to challenge him this year.
Petri, 73, has been popular in his district, generally winning his races with at least 60 percent of the vote. He's faced only two Republican primaries since 1996, and he had at least 82 percent support in each.
But Petri, whose campaign confirmed he is running for re-election, is something of a relic. He's a centrist Republican at a time when his party has been moving to the right, spurred by well-funded special interest groups that favor conservative candidates.
"Tom Petri is kind of a vanishing breed," said Jim Simmons, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. "He's a moderate Republican in a time of increasing polarization. In this political climate the rules of the game have changed."
Petri is still in a position to ward off a challenger. He has nearly $1 million in campaign funds, and he has plenty of name recognition. He's not prominent on the national stage, and he's held only a handful of congressional leadership positions over his three-decade career. But his strength has been in constituent services — bringing back funds for roads and bridges, advocating for Wisconsin companies and so on.
However, there are vulnerabilities too. He's not terribly charismatic, and is an indifferent campaigner, and he doesn't have a record of voting strictly along Republican lines, Simmons said.
Also, questions have been raised about his stock portfolio and whether he has a conflict of interest in advocating for a Wisconsin company in which he owns stock.
Gannett Wisconsin Media reported this year that Petri bought hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of stock in Oshkosh Corp. and then pressed colleagues to help the company retain a $3 billion military contract and avoid Pentagon cuts. Petri responded with the unusual step of requesting an ethics investigation and said his transactions were based only on public information.
Grothman, 58, is the first Republican to announce a challenge. State Rep. Duey Stroebel and John Hiller, a close confidante of Gov. Scott Walker, have both said they're considering a run. Neither returned a telephone message seeking comment.
Grothman on Thursday called Petri a "very good human being," but said he represents a bygone era when Republicans didn't fight as hard for smaller government. Grothman said he's concerned that the federal government is overreaching into everything from health care to education.
"As a state legislator I can't help but be frustrated with the federal presence in things that should be state-related," said Grothman, the Senate's assistant majority leader.
Petri's campaign released a statement in response that said: "My record of pragmatic conservatism will speak for itself. I respect Glenn and the work he's done at the state level. I will run a strong campaign and I expect to win" in the August primary and November general election.
Grothman, a former practicing attorney who has been in the Legislature since 1993, is known for his outspoken attacks on affirmative action, welfare benefits, early sex education and abortion.
He once sponsored a bill that would have changed state law to allow factory and retail employees to work seven days a week. He also sponsored a bill this year, which did not pass in the Legislature, that would prohibit public workers' health insurance plans from covering abortions and exempt religious organizations from providing insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Those conservative credentials could help a candidate raise funds from tea party-leaning groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the national tea party group financed by the billionaire Koch brothers, or Club for Growth. Messages left for the Wisconsin chapters of each group weren't immediately returned.
The 6th Congressional District is in east-central Wisconsin. It covers Columbia, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Manitowoc, Marquette, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Waushara counties, as well as parts of Dodge, Milwaukee and Winnebago counties.
The district is reliably conservative, so Simmons predicted that any Republican who wins the primary will win the seat. He also suggested that Petri take any threat to his incumbency seriously.
"Nationwide there's been more of an effort by conservative groups and individuals to purify the party," he said. "Being a RINO, a Republican In Name Only, is an endangered species. I would think potential challengers would certainly think the congressman is vulnerable."