Washington Bureau

04.03.14

Tom Petri's Primary Challenge May Mark End Of Rockefeller Republicanism

Tom Petri, a 35-year Wisconsin Congressman faces a tough primary that could end the career of the last "Rockefeller Republican" on Capitol Hill.

Tom Petri is an institution in Wisconsin politics but the 35-year-veteran of Capitol Hill faces a tough path to re-election.

The moderate GOP congressman from Wisconsin's 6th Congressional District is perhaps the last remnant of an era when the phrase "liberal Republican" wasn't an oxymoron but instead represented a thriving wing of the Republican Party. Even as late as 1979, when Petri first came to Congress in a special election, he arrived in Washington DC to a party where figures like Jacob Javits and Charles Percy still held elected office as Republicans. (In contrast, among the Democrats in the House when Petri took office included two future Republican senators, Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby). Now the Wisconsin congressman is a political Chingachgook, the last of his tribe remaining on Capitol Hill.

But while Petri has managed to coast against minimal opposition for years; he drew a major primary challenge Thursday when State Sen. Glenn Grothman announced he would move to Petri's district to run against the longtime incumbent.

Grothman is about as far right as Republicans come. The three-term state senator has pushed for a seven-day work week, sponsored the repeal of Wisconsin's equal pay law, sought to ban discussion of homosexuality in public schools and "declared war on Kwanzaa."

In contrast, while Petri has been honored by the American Conservative Union for his hawkishness on budget issues and has a relatively conservative voting record, the Republican stalwart has been passed over as a committee chair several times because he was perceived as being too moderate by his GOP colleagues. 

Observers think Grothman would be well-positioned in a Republican primary, provided the 73-year-old Petri even runs. One Republican observer to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that odds were only 50-50 that the longtime incumbent would even run again. Grothman is not the only potential challenger to Petri as two other more conservative Republicans are also reportedly considering bids to challenge the incumbent. If one or both ran, it would likely help Petri by splitting the conservative vote in a primary.

If Petri doesn't return to Congress, he would be part of an exodus of senior congressional leaders that already includes John Dingell (D-MI), who has served 55 years in Congress, Henry Waxman (D-CA) and George Miller (D-CA), both of whom were first elected in 1974, as well as a record number of commitee chairs of both parties.

But Petri's primary challenge and possible departure from Capitol Hill is more than just the changing of the guard. The decades-long civil war between liberals and conservatives within the GOP has long been settled. Rockefeller Republicans have long gone the way of the woolly mammoth. But Petri's depature from Congress would bring the history of a political faction that dominated the Republican Party for much of the 20th century to an absolute close.