Four candidates are vying for the GOP nomination in Wisconsin's only open House district, with no clear front-runner in the Tuesday primary.
In the race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Tom Petri, three top Republican candidates have tried to brand themselves as the most conservative contender in the 6th District: state Sen. Joe Leibham, state Sen. Glenn Grothman and state Rep. Duey Stroebel.
"I think it's going to be a tight race," said Scott Becher, a Wisconsin GOP consultant with Red Shoes PR.
Public and private polling on the race has been scare. The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the race as a Safe Republican contest, and whoever wins the primary on Tuesday will likely head to Congress next year. When Petri retired, some GOP strategists speculated Leibham would be the front-runner because his legislative district includes a significant portion of the 6th District. Leibham's team has estimated his base of Sheboygan will constitute roughly 30 percent of the primary electorate. He's been representing that area since 1998. Despite Leibham's geographical advantage, Grothman is gaining momentum. At an Aug. 7 debate, the other candidates had Grothman in their cross hairs — a sign they could see him as the top candidate.
Grothman got in the race before Petri retired, calling the congressman not sufficiently conservative. The longtime state lawmaker is an outspoken firebrand, and his House bid has received support from popular Wisconsin talk radio hosts and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
“I think from the start it’s safe to say that the most conservative of a very conservative electorate were already in his camp,” said a Wisconsin GOP strategist. “Grothman has a reputation of aggressively taking on hot button issues.”
That's good for Grothman, since more conservative and passionate voters are likely to vote in the primary.
Although election officials anticipate a low statewide turnout in Tuesday's election, Becher said it could be higher in the 6th District because an open seat is rare.
“There’s a true opportunity for conservatives to get out there and choose a candidate,” Becher said.
Leibham’s task will be energizing his base of support in the eastern part of the district. Meanwhile, Stroebel will be hoping that his mantra as a political outsider resonates with voters.
Stroebel is a sophomore state representative who has tried to distance himself from the conservative field by emphasizing his private sector experience. He's largely self-financed his campaign, dominating the airwaves with more radio and television ads than the other candidates.
Most recently, Stroebel loaned his campaign $350,000, leaving him with $263,000 in the bank on July 23, just a few weeks before the primary. Grothman also loaned his campaign $90,000, bringing his cash on hand total to $160,000 around the same date. Liebham, who did not self-fund his campaign, raised $77,000 for the final leg of the race and reported $171,000 in cash on hand. There's a fourth Republican in the race, Tom Denow, a retired technical college instructor and former Chrysler manager. But he has not raised enough funds to file a campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission.
Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat Mark Harris in the fall. Harris, the Winnebago county executive, faces an uphill climb in the Republican district.
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