By rohn w. bishop
The first weekend of May brings the annual Republican Party of Wisconsin State Convention that kicks off the campaign season. This year’s convention is in Milwaukee, and it’s where Wisconsin Republicans ought to be focused on re-electing Scott Walker as Governor, electing Brad Schimel Attorney General, holding on to if not adding to their slim senate majority, while maintaining control of the state assembly, and congressional delegation.
This shouldn’t be all that hard!
After all 2014 is shaping up to be a big Republican year nationally, and here in Wisconsin off-year elections are generally good for Republicans. Add to that Governor Scott Walker has held a small but constant lead over challenger Mary Burke, and it looked as though everything was falling into place.
Until recently, that is…
The party of Lincoln?
As March turned into April the state GOP found itself dealing with a rash of self inflicted negative headlines.
First, a Republican lawmaker was accused of committing a sexual assault and not just any lawmaker either. It was the Assembly Majority Leader, Bill Kramer of Waukesha. The Republican Assembly caucus then had to meet in a special session to remove Kramer as leader, a terrible news story for a party trying to escape the “War on Women” meme.
Then on April 5 the party’s Resolutions Committee voted in favor of a resolution that says the state party “supports legislation that upholds Wisconsin’s right, under extreme circumstances, to secede.”
That’s right! The party of Abraham Lincoln, who fought the Civil War against states that seceded from the union, over his policy of restricting the expansion of slavery, voted to “uphold Wisconsin’s right to secede!” What a brilliant campaign strategy! While they’re at it these geniuses of political suicide should rename their annual Lincoln Day Dinner the John C. Calhoun Day Dinner.
Being experts at blowing elections, these tin foil hat-wearing, e-cigarette smoking, kooks were just getting started as they then turned their fire onto elected Republicans.
Next, the Resolutions Committee pushed for a resolution criticizing Paul Ryan for compromising with Democrats in order to get a budget passed. Ryan, who serves as Chairman of the House Budget Committee and was the 2012 GOP nominee for Vice President, negotiated a bipartisan budget agreement with Senator Patty Murry of Oregon.
Committee members, who don’t seem to realize Democrats control the U.S. Senate or that Barack Obama won the White House, believe Ryan sold them out for actually doing his job and governing, instead of just bitching from the sidelines!
Finally, there is a resolution that expresses a vote of “no confidence” in Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon and Rep. Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake.
Both Olsen and Kestell have come under fire for supporting the Common Core State Standards for public schools, and for blocking attempts to overhaul the program, that many conservatives see as an overhaul of public education by President Obama.
These resolutions embarrassed Republicans when they appeared in a Dan Bice column on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and Rep. Kestell decided not to seek re-election.
Worst of all, instead of hammering on Mary Burke about her company outsourcing thousands of jobs, or the fact her resume is at best inconsistent; the governor has to answer questions about an absurd idea like secession. Walker responded: “I don’t think that one aligns with where most Republican officials are in the state of Wisconsin — certainly not with me.”
The governor is correct. There is no appetite among us mainstream Republicans for secession, and we overwhelming admire Ryan for the courageous work he’s done on the budget. As for the Common Core standards, I see a lot of passion, a lot of frustration and a lot of confusion. As someone who believes we shouldn’t even have a federal Department of Education, I agree this is an issue the legislature must take another look at, but it’s inappropriate to use the party’s resolutions as a firing squad on our own members.
All resolutions get an up or down vote by delegates to the convention, hopefully we can take our party back from a fringe element, hell bent on giving away this fall’s election.
While we’re at it we should repeal a 2012 resolution that called for the state party to never again hold a convention in a building that prohibits concealed firearms. A resolution ignored by party leadership in their quest to not have the convention under a big tent in Adams County.
Tom Petri was first elected to congress in the special election of April 1979, following the untimely death of Congressman William Steiger. Petri defeated an up-and-coming politico in the Republican Primary named Tommy Thompson.
Despite having an 80% conservative voting record, and a 100% Pro Life voting record, being the first member of the congressional delegation to endorse Scott Walker for Governor, paying out of his own pocket the cost of the Joe Leibham recount in 2002, and writing the bill that repealed the 55 m.p.h. speed limit, Petri is seen by some as a moderate, “go along to get along” squishy RINO. This has more to do with his demeanor than his voting record. Petri comes off as…well, boring.
Petri doesn’t fire off press releases, he doesn’t pound the gavel and yell “shut the lights off!” like a Jim Sensenbrenner, and he doesn’t write the Federal Budget (or run for Vice President) like Paul Ryan. Petri isn’t a media hog, seemly avoiding talk radio. (I’ve heard he doesn’t even want it on in the car.)
Petri has frustrated conservative activists because he looked at constituent services, and sticking up for Wisconsin’s 6th congressional district as his main responsibility in office, not leading a conservative revolution like other members do. ( That said, I should point out Petri participated in both the Reagan Revolution of the 1980’s and the Gingrich Revolution on the mid 1990’s. Petri also voted to impeach sexual predator Bill Clinton. )
Ideally, Petri was to run for one more term. This would have allowed Sheboygan area Senator, and Petri heir-apparent, Joe Leibham to run for re-election to his senate seat in 2014, helping the GOP keep the state senate, and then for Leibham to run for Petri’s seat in 2016.
Conservative media outlets could not stand the thought of another term of Tom Petri, and began a dragnet of someone, anyone, to challenge Petri in the upcoming primary. Hell, they didn’t even care if the guy lived in the 6th district! Most refused to run, but with some cajoling, State Senator Glenn Grothman jumped into the race to challenge Petri.
Looking at a divisive primary that would tear the party apart and put Governor Walker in an uncomfortable situation, only to serve one more term, Petri decided to put the party first and not seek re-election.
Now the race is wide open, and Senator Leibham enters the race as the front runner. This puts his senate seat up for grabs as well, along with the Ellis seat.
Mike Ellis was exposed in a secret undercover smart phone video recording by conservative activist James O’ Keefe and his Project Veritas. Ellis was caught explaining a campaign finance scheme to create a super PAC, and said some disparaging things about Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Ellis is known for “holding court” at the Inn on the Park in Madison where he drinks too much and talks way too much. Who was really behind the idea of going after Ellis this way is unclear, though most believe it’s conservative activists fed up with Ellis’ opposition to expanded school choice. Meaning, like Petri, he was taken out by his own side.
Although Ellis didn’t do anything wrong, the video looked bad…really bad. Ellis knew it, and instead of fighting through it for one last term he decided to retire.
Mike Ellis was the most colorful, most powerful, larger-than-life personality to serve in the Wisconsin State Senate since the days of Tiny Krueger. When asked by the AP how he wanted to be remembered Ellis replied, “As a pain in the ass!”
All this turmoil this late into an election cycle is not good news for a party trying to hold onto a slim 18-15 majority. True, the GOP should pick up the seat being vacated by John Lehman in Racine, and they have a decent shot at picking up the seat of retiring Senator Bob Jauch. That said, the Democrats have a shot to pick up the seat being vacated by Dale Shultz, and with the last minute retirement of Mike Ellis, and Joe Leibham getting in this late in the race for congress, leaves the GOP scrambling for candidates, against well established Democrats, who’ve been campaigning for a year.
The state senate looked to be solidly in Republican hands. Now the Democrats have a sliver of hope.
Bishop served on the Waupun Common Council and currently serves as Treasurer for the Republican Party of Fond du Lac County.
Rohn W. Bishop is a monthly contributor to “The Scene”