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 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. Liebham and Stroebel are both well to Petri’s right, but Grothman far outflanks them all.
It's utterly impossible to imagine in 2014 any Republican in Congress being a member of the NAACP. Petri is the last of his breed, now driven out of the party by the anti-science, anti-minority, anti-woman core of the modern GOP. Between Petri and his predecessor, Rob Steiger, WI-6 was the home of moderate Republicanism for almost 50 years. Now it's just another red meat red district.
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 aJune cover story about the rise of the state’s governor, Scott Walker, and that theMilwaukee 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.
It would be easy to say things along the lines of "somewhere along the way the Republican party stopped being the party of hope and became the party of abject fear and resentment" but Republicans have never been the part of anything but, at least not in my lifetime. The last strands of human decency have been purged from the party, seemingly permanently. Tom Petri was that last strand.
Now nothing is left but the wasteland. And if they remain in charge, that wasteland will swallow all.