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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

The Sudden Changing of the GOP Old Guard

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U.S. Rep. Tom Petri has been in public office for 41 years; Senator Mike Ellis for 44 years. They both quit the same day. 

As a result, Wisconsin -- which has seen its share of transformative politics in recent years -- may be about to see another dramatic shift in both its legislature and congressional delegation.

Ellis's announcement came earlier Friday, just days after an undercover video was posted of the powerful senate president sounding off at a Madison bar on campaign finance, Scott Walker, and the John Doe. It was a political head shot, and Ellis knew it. 

His decision sets off a scramble to succeed him as well as speculation that the next senate will considerably more conservative than the current one.

In an interview with me Friday morning, Ellis said "the world has changed and I just don't fit in anymore." 

Petri apparently came to the same conclusion. 

Faced with a conservative primary challenge for the first time in decades, the 35-year veteran of the House (he served in the state senate for six years), Petri took much of the GOP establishment by surprise by dropping his expected race for re-election. Despite widespread speculation he might hang it up, Petri nevertheless had been widely expected to seek re-election and his campaign had nearly a $1 million in the bank. 

But the low-profile, low-impact Petri was facing the kind of scrutiny and opposition he had largely avoided for much of his career. State Senator Glenn Grothman had already announced a primary challenge and conservative media had begun highlighting his mixed record in office. 

As the Wisconsin State Journal noted: "Petri...  is something of a relic. He's a centrist Republican at a time when his party has been moving to the right, spurred by well-funded special interest groups that favor conservative candidates."

But there was more to it than that. In a state known for its aggressive, dynamic, reform-minded conservatives -- Paul Ryan, Scott walker, Ron Johnson -- Petri seldom led.. on anything. Try to remember the last memorable thing Petri said; or the cause he championed... or much of anything at all about him for the last couple of decades.

He was inoffensive and relatively popular, the political equivalent of a potted plant. He was a GOP Herb Kohl, a political figure who had drifted into irrelevance and inactivity.

Petri's long voting record also left him vulnerable to a challenge from the right. In an article that appeared just yesterday in Right Wisconsin headlined "Why Tom Petri is Beatable," Matt Batzel noted Petri's baggage:

Gannett Media exposed how Petri has advocated more government spending for certain organizations, in which he owned stock. Media Trackers discussed how Petri is a big fan of high speed rail. They also showed how Petri has consistently advocated and voted for more government involvement in healthcare, even voting for single payer healthcare. The fact that a sitting Member of Congress responded directly to Media Trackers reveals how afraid he is of his healthcare positions. Media Trackers also pointed out how much money Petri has received from unions who spent heavily to recall Governor Walker.  Wisconsin Reporter then underlined the numerous spending measures Petri has supported over the past 35 years, like Cash for Clunkers, Head Start expansion, and Obama’s Stimulus for an Education Jobs Fund. Questions over where Petri actually lives have also arisen.  These votes, positions, and questions are only bound to increase over the next several months. 

As perceptions of Petri's vulnerability spread, other candidates also seemed to be gathering in the wings, including State Rep. Duey Stroebel and businessman John Hiller.

But Petri's announcement now scrambles the field. 

State Senator Joe Leibham, who has long been seen as Petri's heir-apparent, was quick to express interest. Within minutes of Petri's withdrawal, Leibham tweeted: "I appreciate your thoughts and prayers as I contemplate a candidacy for the 6th Congressional District. Stay tuned for more news."

Leibham would likely become an immediate front-runner if he chooses to enter the race, but the field could grow quickly.

That in turn would set off even more dominoes as the shape and face of the state's GOP is reshuffled from the Assembly on up.

The 2014 election just got a lot more interesting.

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