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Glenn Grothman, perhaps state’s most extremist elected official, vies with Mark Harris for open congressional seat

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Are women less money conscious than men, and is that why they earn less? Are sex-education classes designed to turn students gay? Do people on food stamps eat better than grocery store owners?

State Sen. Glenn Grothman says “yes” to all of the above. But the larger question is whether voters in Wisconsin’s Sixth Congressional District will send someone with such controversial views to Washington.

On Aug. 12, Grothman prevailed by a mere 214 votes in a hotly contested, four-way Republican primary race in the district, which includes Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Manitowoc. That means more Republicans voted against Grothman than for him.

State Sen. Joe Leibham, a more appealing candidate in every way than the disheveled, misinformed and inarticulate Grothman, was runner-up in the primary. Wisconsin Democrats were all but celebrating Leibham’s loss. They believe Grothman’s candidacy gives them a come-from-behind chance in a district that’s rated as safe for the GOP by The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

All of the GOP primary contenders expressed radical views. They all vowed to impeach President Barack Obama, who constitutional scholars on both sides of the political divide have stressed has not committed any impeachable offenses. All four also promised to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

But none of the others could match Grothman for bizarre statements that have been widely disseminated. Grothman, for instance, not only wants to eliminate the U.S. Education Department but also wants to eliminate all pre-kindergarten programs, because, he says, children under 9 years old are incapable of learning.

Grothman, 59, obviously has not had a lot of experience with children. A lifelong bachelor, he lives with his mother.

With the primary behind him, Grothman now faces popular Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris and Libertarian Gus Fahrendorf in the Nov. 4 general election. The Sixth District seat is open due to the retirement of Thomas Petri, who’s served in Congress since 1979. Once considered a moderate, Petri has been pushed to the right by the growing extremism among GOP primary voters. Political insiders speculate that Petri might have grown embarrassed by the votes he had to take in order to meet their demands.

The race has strong implications for the rest of Wisconsin due to the reputational damage that Grothman could do. He’s already been an object of so much national ridicule that the Daily Kos website recently ran a piece about him tited, “Could there be another America’s dumbest congressman? Meet Wisconsin’s Glenn Grothman.”

 Apparently aware of his own shortcomings, Grothman’s strategy is to run as if he were an incumbent, avoiding as many debates as he plausibly can in order to avoid headline-making gaffes. Harris has challenged Grothman to a debate in every county in the district, but Harris’ campaign spokesman doesn’t expect the Republican to participate in more than three. He says Grothman has been all but invisible on the campaign trail.

Responding to Grothman’s Sept. 19 announcement that his campaign was hiring a new communication director, Harris’ campaign issued a statement that said, “No debates, no media engagement and limited contact with voters. Barely any website, Twitter or Facebook activity since the primary. That is Grothman’s rose garden strategy.

“Now, he has gone so far as to hire a handler whose goal will be to continue to insulate the Republican nominee from voters and the media.”

CEO of War on Women

As a state senator, Grothman has seen his margins of victories large but steadily eroding. In 2004, when he had no opponent, Grothman won 99 percent of the vote; in 2012, he took 68 percent of the vote against a Democratic rival.

Although the district leans more Republican than the national average by 5 percentage points, Barack Obama won it in 2008 with 49.91 percent of the vote.

Grothman has never before faced the quality of opponent he does in Harris. A fiscally conservative, socially moderate and uncontroversial Democrat with a superb record of management, Harris has balanced Winnebago County’s budgets, controlled spending, maintained services and reduced county debt. He’s focusing his campaign on fiscal responsibility, bipartisanship, the welfare of seniors, college affordability and getting full-time workers out of poverty. 

“The guy on the factory floor should not pay more taxes than the factory owner,” Harris says on his website.

“We feel that Mark is exactly the kind of guy that the district needs,” said his campaign spokesman. “He’s working on matters that are of interest to the district. This district is not an extreme district, and Glenn Grothman is extreme.”

Grothman is mostly known for his advocacy of the extremist social agenda championed by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, whom he supported for president.

“We think Glenn Grothman is the CEO of the war on women in Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Melissa Bauldauf. “We think that’s going to be rejected by voters.” 

Harris has said he views the race as a choice between “a pragmatist who will fight for fair policies that benefit the average worker and family (and) an extreme ideologue who wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s.”

“There’s an awful lot of thoughtful Republican and independent voters who are up for grabs,” Harris says. “There’s a base that probably likes (Grothman’s) extreme right-wing positions, but I don’t think that represents the view of the majority of the people in the district.”

Harris says he plans to run on his record rather than Grothman’s personality problems. He plans to visit each county in the district three times to meet voters face-to-face and tout his accomplishments, which include cutting county spending by 4 percent and reducing Winnebago’s debt by more than 30 percent. When speaking with voters, he contrasts those achievements with Grothman’s legislative record, which includes serving during a period when the state’s debt tripled.

“State debt has reached an all-time high and state spending is at an all-time high” during the time Grothman has been in the Legislature, Harris says.

Baldauf agrees that Harris’ record is strong enough to sway voters who are put off by Grothman’s embarrassing extremism. “His ability to balance the budget and demonstrate responsible fiscal leadership while maintaining progressive values is going to resonate,” she predicts.

On the Web

To learn more about Mark Harris, go to harrisforwisconsin.com.

Glenn Grothman’s website is  glenngrothman.com.

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