MILWAUKEE (AP) — U.S. Rep. Tom Petri announced Friday that he plans to retire, ending a 35-year career as a moderate Republican from east-central Wisconsin.
Petri, who would have faced re-election in November, will make a formal announcement Monday at a town hall meeting in his district in Neenah, according to his office. The 73-year-old has been popular in his district, generally winning elections with at least 60 percent of the vote. But he's a centrist Republican at a time when his party has been moving to the right, and he would have faced a rare primary election against at least one conservative state lawmaker.
Last week his spokesman, Lee Brooks, said Petri would run for at least one more term. Brooks said Friday the congressman's reversal was a result of "several factors" and that Petri would elaborate Monday.
Petri had nearly $1 million in campaign funds and was well-known in his district. He wasn't especially prominent on the national stage, but his strength was in securing funds for Wisconsin projects such as roads and bridges.
He generally won elections with ease in his Republican-leaning district. He faced only two Republican primaries since 1996, and he had at least 82 percent support in each. But this year was going to be more of a challenge. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, a conservative known for his outspoken attacks on affirmative action, welfare benefits, early sex education and abortion, announced last week that he'd mount a run against Petri.
Grothman said Petri's abrupt decision to retire came as a surprise, but added that it doesn't change his own plans. "I plan to continue to run to bring conservative representation to the 6th Congressional District," he said.
Within minutes of Petri's announcement, state Sen. Joe Leibham released a statement saying he'd spend the next few days deciding whether to run as well. "I will take time over the next couple of days to consider, discuss and pray about how and where I can best use my time and talent to improve the quality of life for our state and nation," Leibham said.
Two other Wisconsin Republicans have said previously they might run too. State Rep. Duey Stroebel said he's been monitoring developments and would make a decision "on my own timeline," and John Hiller, a confidant of Gov. Scott Walker, said he's still considering his options.
"His retirement doesn't change the fact that we need new leadership in Congress," Hiller said. In a statement Friday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a fellow Republican, praised Petri as "a long and trusted friend to Wisconsin and to me personally."
"We will miss his leadership — in particular on transportation and education issues. We thank him for his distinguished service," Walker said. Petri is the 27th member of the House to announce their retirement ahead of next year's election and the 14th Republican member to do so. He is one of 13 members retiring who have served 10 or more terms in the House.
He leaves Congress with a well-earned reputation as a moderate — one of a diminishing number in the polarized House of Representatives. Petri's moderation has cost him over the years. In 2006, he became ranking member of the House Transportation Committee but when Republicans regained the House he was passed over for John Mica, considered a more conservative alternative.
And in 2000, Petri was positioned to become the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee but was passed over for now-Speaker John Boehner. At the time, he complained about a purge of moderates from the Republican caucus.
In Congress, Petri has worked on education issues, supporting increased Pell grants. In 2007, he was one of a handful of Republicans to vote against President George W. Bush's proposed troop surge in Iraq. He also voted for a Democratic-led effort to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. During the Obama administration, Petri has maintained a moderate voting record but hasn't voted for any key Democratic bills such as the health care law or the stimulus.
The 6th Congressional District is in east-central Wisconsin. It covers Columbia, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Manitowoc, Marquette, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Waushara counties, as well as parts of Dodge, Milwaukee and Winnebago counties.
Associated Press reporter Henry C. Jackson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at email@example.com.