Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Republicans Purge Their Elders

No matter how experienced, moderates willing to negotiate with Democrats are getting purged from the party.

By - Apr 21st, 2014 10:09 am

On April 11, two 73-year-old white professional males announced their retirements. So what? When septuagenarians move on, doesn’t it create opportunities for others?

Yet, in this case, the announcements rocked Wisconsin politics and continued the trend of younger GOP conservatives sidelining their political elders.

After serving in the Legislature for 44 years, Senate President Mike Ellis, of Neenah, retired after he was secretly taped in a bar bragging about his ability to set up, and have wealthy friends fund, an illegal political action committee to attack his Democratic opponent.

Ellis suspects the secret taping was organized by conservatives who consider him too independent and too unwilling to blindly vote for anything proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. He refused to “walk behind the cart” once too often, Ellis said in a WisconsinEye interview.

Hours later, 6th District Congressman Tom Petri said 35 years in the U.S. House is enough, thank you. The Republican, Wisconsin’s second longest-serving member of Congress, retired in the face of a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican, state Sen. Glenn Grothman.

Veteran UW-Madison political scientist Barry Burden offers this explanation:

“Talented, moderate, and experienced legislators are leaving office. They are being replaced by younger, more ideological, and more legislatively aggressive politicians. But it is not merely one taking over for the other. The veterans are being scared away by insurgents who are likely to defeat them in the Republican primary.” More from Burden later.

Steve Kestell

Steve Kestell

In a related development, eight-term Republican Rep. Steve Kestell, of Elkhart Lake, announced his retirement April 1. Only a few years ago, Kestell was considered one of the most conservative Assembly Republicans. For example, Kestell said last week that Act 10 changes that limited collective bargaining by public employees and required them to pay more for pensions and health care should have passed “10 years ago,” instead of in 2011.

Kestell said he was “stunned” that his fellow Republicans passed “no confidence” motions in him and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen for their leadership on education issues over the last two years. The votes came at Republican congressional district meetings. Serving as chairs of Assembly and Senate education committees, Kestell and Olsen refused to go along with demands by new, more conservative Republicans that legislators – and not professional educators – decide which future Common Core Standards are taught school children.

And, in March, the new, take-no-prisoners generation of conservative Republicans forced 32-year Republican legislator, Sen. Dale Schultz, to retire. Schultz faced a primary challenge from two-term Republican Rep. Howard Marklein, who had spent more than a year raising funds to take out Schultz.

Now, more from political scientist Burden on the litmus-test purges of veteran Republicans by their political children and grandchildren. “It mimics the debates among Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives,” says Burden. “Speaker Boehner has to somehow manage the traditional mainstream Republicans and the new Tea Party Republicans simultaneously. One group thinks the GOP has become too conservative. The other thinks it has not become conservative enough. Like Boehner, Gov. Walker and Republican legislative leaders will have their hands full trying to satisfy both wings of the party.”

So far, the trend is clear: Moderate Republicans, including Republicans willing to negotiate with Democrats like retiring 24-year Assembly veteran Rep. Dean Kaufert, who was elected mayor of Neenah, are being pushed out. Kaufert said in a WisconsinEye interview last week that conservatives recruited a primary opponent against him in 2012 because he voted against Act 10. But, Kaufert noted with a grin, he got 64 percent of the vote in that primary.

Kaufert said his Republican Party began electing “far right” candidates several years ago. “I’m worried about where we’re headed,” Kaufert added. “There are some people who say, ‘We’re in charge. Let’s do it now. Let’s do it our way. Let’s get it all done.’ And that’s just not good government.”

Burden said Republicans seem to be the only ones discarding political elders with whom they disagree. “Similar trends do not appear to be taking place in the state Democratic Party right now,” Burden said. “Retirements on the Democratic side are mostly about personal choices or dissatisfaction at being in the minority party in the Legislature – not about being pushed out.”

Steven is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email

4 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Republicans Purge Their Elders”

  1. Guy Rizzie says:

    The good news is that this is a last gasp of the nutters. The bad news is there’s still some air left and they’ll likely **** up Wisconsin for another generation. I certainly hope Mary Burke can pull off a win, though she needs to be a lot more pragmatic and not as blindly Democrat as these goons are blindly Republican.

  2. Omnicisent One says:

    Youth forsake elders all the time, often at their peril, but the lesson must be learned the hard way. Unfortunately, in this case, the consequences are all external to those in power.

    Term limits aren’t a clear answer either. The moneyed folk have no problem biding their time building their influence and taking out the opponent one at a time.

    Only a (re-)education of the voting public — mainly along the lines of “don’t believe they actually represent you” and “that ‘tax cut’ isn’t everything they promise” will turn the tide.

  3. Mike Bark says:

    This article really misses the point:

    1. Mike Ellis is not running because he was taped talking about illegal activity. Had he stayed in the race the same Democrats that are bemoaning his departure would be hammering him with that video.

    2. Tom Petri was targeted largely because he was a do nothing congressman in a Wisconsin which has produced leaders like Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson, and others. The reason Petri is gone is he’s probably too lazy to actually run for the office. Had he stayed in the race he likely would have won because I think he would have beaten Glenn Grothmann one on one and he would have certainly won had other Republicans gotten into the race. The simple matter is he didn’t feel like doing any of that work.

    3. Ditto for Dale Schultz. Dale said he felt he would have defeated Howard Marklein, but the reality is he would have had to go out and actually campaign instead of simply cruising to victory.

    The media has a laser like focus on this issue now because they want to be able to say “Hey, look how extreme the Republicans are”. Yet, when they Democrats were getting rid of younger moderates like Jeff Plale and Jason Fields many of these same writers didn’t have much to say about the death of moderates.

  4. PMD says:

    Not exactly true Mike. Just two months ago the Journal Sentinel published a major story by Jason Stein and Patrick Marley noting that Democrats have also been getting rid of moderates like Fields, Tony Staskunas, and Annette Williams.

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