The surprise decision by Republican Rep. Thomas Petri of Wisconsin to announce his retirement from Congress on Monday has sent Republicans in the state's Sixth District scurrying for a House seat that was last open over 30 years ago.
In 1979, then-state Sen. Petri won a special election to succeed one of the GOP's brightest stars at the time, Republican Rep. Bill Steiger, who had died of a heart attack at age 40 shortly after winning re-election.
Given the district's 48-year history of sending a Republican to Congress, it seems a safe bet to say that Petri's successor will be decided in the GOP primary on Aug. 12.
More importantly, in what has been a nationwide trend in Republican-held House seats when they become open, it also seems safe to say that Petri's GOP successor will be decidedly more conservative than he was.
"Based on the field of candidates likely to enter the Republican primary and the current political environment, the signs are strong that the Republican nominee will be someone much more conservative than Rep. Petri," veteran Wisconsin GOP consultant Scott Becher told Newsmax.
At 73, Petri, a Harvard graduate and onetime Peace Corps volunteer, is one of a dwindling number of House Republicans who can be classified as more centrist than conservative.
Petri is a proud member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. He opposed oil drilling in Alaska, and voted with organized labor enough that his three biggest contributors in the last election cycle were unions.
Although Petri generally opposed abortion and voted against Obamacare, he nevertheless supported stem-cell research and a program known as "Multicare" that would have established federally run insurance centers.
Even before his retirement announcement, when all signs from Petri were that he was running again, conservatives made it clear they felt it was time for one of their own to step up.
For weeks, state Sen. Glenn Grothman had been running from the right against Petri and lining up support from both tea partiers and cultural conservatives.
As vice chairman of the Senate GOP Caucus, Grothman, 58, is the father of Wisconsin's law to permit citizens to "conceal and carry" guns.
In addition, he co-sponsored legislation to end mandatory chlorination of water in municipal water systems, and opposed anti-smoking laws.
Following Petri's announcement, Grothman told the Milwaukee Journal that "it means running a whole different sort of race" because he would probably face several conservatives in a primary rather than one incumbent who is less conservative.
Grothman lives just outside the Sixth District. Although the U.S. Constitution requires a House member to be a resident of the state rather than the district, Grothman has said he is moving to Campbellsport within the district.
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had also been widely mentioned as a candidate. Fitzgerald, along with his brother and then-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, was a player in enacting Gov. Scott Walker's healthcare and pension reforms for public employees that led to the 2012 recall election that Walker survived. But Fitzgerald announced Monday he would not be a candidate.
Two other conservative heavyweights who sent out strong signals they are running are state Senate President Pro Tem Joe Leibham of Sheboygan and John Hiller, Walker's longtime political eyes and ears.
Leibham told reporters he would consider a race, and Hiller has set up an exploratory committee.
The Sixth District has all or parts of 10 counties and gave Mitt Romney a handsome win in 2012.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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