Congressman Glenn Grothman has never lost an election. Will a Democratic wave and a challenger named Kohl change that?
The voters of eastern Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District are so rock-ribbed Republican that they haven’t elected a Democrat since 1964. That guy, John Race, lasted only one term.
The district’s incumbent, Rep. Glenn Grothman, has never lost an election in his 24 years in office, but this year the conservative firebrand has been running for his political life.
Facing a possible Democratic wave fueled by dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and a well-funded, well-connected moderate challenger with a famous name ready to capitalize on it, Grothman warned last fall that he expected this to be the “toughest race of my political career.”
If there’s a comeuppance for Grothman this November, it’ll come at the hands of Dan Kohl. The 52-year-old Mequon resident and nephew of former Sen. Herb Kohl contends that people “are sick and tired of all the fighting and finger-pointing and all the stalemate and dysfunction in Washington.”
Political observers rate the 6th as leaning or likely Republican this fall. In mid-June the Democratic Party added it to its “Red to Blue” program, bringing national fundraising, training and organizational resources. “The district is solidly Republican, but it is not out of the reach of the Democrats,” says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison.
Burden thinks the Democratic newcomer has a shot in November. “Kohl is going to need everything to go right, and he will need a sizable Democratic wave,” Burden says. “If that wave is high, it may put Grothman in some jeopardy. He hasn’t faced that yet.”
Grothman, a 63-year-old bachelor who lives in Glenbeulah, is hailed by most as a vigorous, old-school campaigner and assailed by some for being too plain-spoken. He was first elected to the state Assembly in 1993, and each time he moved up the representation ladder, he did so against a more moderate Republican incumbent. In 2004 he ousted State Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, and in 2014, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri chose to retire after 35 years in the seat rather than face a primary challenge from Grothman.
He toes the conservative GOP line on many issues – he is stridently anti-abortion, an accomplished fiscal hawk and immigration hard-liner, and he bucks gun control measures – yet this year constituents have begun to push back harder on some of his stances. Grothman has offered voters in his district plenty of face time, with numerous town hall meetings, a job fair in Neenah, an opioid abuse roundtable discussion in Oshkosh and a field briefing on federal air quality standards in Sheboygan.
The 6th District spans 11 counties in a flat H shape, from River Hills to Manitowoc on the east to Wisconsin Dells on the west and Fond du Lac at its center. That geographic breadth and the incumbent’s constant activity make it an uphill climb for a newcomer politician to be known and counter the goodwill Grothman has accumulated. “He’s a tireless pancake eater and a parade walker,” says Democrat Sarah Lloyd, who lost to Grothman in 2016. “I got to give the guy some credit for that.”
At his public events, Grothman comes across as your attentive, favorite uncle who somehow never married. He is almost 6 feet tall with ample, coiffed white hair. He normally wears a navy blue sport coat, a light blue shirt and no tie, pants belted just below a healthy paunch. He seems to legitimately enjoy meeting the electorate. “If there’s a church festival or a Lions Club festival or a car show, I’ll be there, baby,” he says.
Grothman, a UW Law School grad, says the majority of people who attend his public events support him, and says those who ask critical questions are “cherry-picking things.”
Such cherry-pickers include Carol L. Zoran of Sheboygan Falls, who at a town hall in Waldo in March asked Grothman why he voted for Trump’s income tax cuts, which economists have warned will increase the country’s huge deficit. Zoran used a domestic metaphor to drive home her point: “How can you take all the money out of your household budget and expect to support your family and children?” Zoran asked. “Why doesn’t Congress grow some balls and start to stand up to the president?” Grothman told her he was not afraid of saying no to government spending, but if the country wanted to grow its economy, it could not tax businesses as much as it has.
“[Grothman’s] a tireless pancake eater and a parade walker. I got to give the guy some credit for that.”
— Democrat Sarah Lloyd, who lost to Grothman in 2016
Grothman is plain-spoken in his conservative views, sometimes to the point of being impolitic. For example, while describing solutions for DACA, the Obama-era program for children of undocumented immigrants, Grothman says these young “Dreamers” should be vetted for “their desirability to assimilate with the American culture. We have to look at criminal records and their use of public benefits. Above all, any bill has to make sure that we don’t wind up with so many people here illegally. Our goal has to be to make every immigrant a good immigrant, and then they can move from there to citizenship someday.”
Grothman “doesn’t have a bad bone in his body,” says Manitowoc County Executive Bob Ziegelbauer, a longtime legislative Democrat who has leaned Republican in the past decade. “But he doesn’t say things in an artful way. He has arguments with policies, not with the body politic.”
Kohl believes voters are tiring of Grothman. “There’s clearly a desire for a different kind of congressional representative in this district,” he says. “What I think people are looking for is someone who is focused on problem-solving, someone who’s looking to bring people together and someone who is looking to lower the volume in these very divided times.”
Kohl describes himself as a nonprofit and business executive who has taken a year off to run for Congress. He began working for what was then his uncle’s team, the Milwaukee Bucks, in 1992 after he graduated from the UW Law School and was assistant general manager between 2003 and 2006. Among his work since leaving the Bucks, Kohl helped found J Street, a pro-Israel lobbying group in D.C. seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last fall he sold a house in Bethesda, Maryland, for $5 million. Kohl and his wife, Stacey, have three children.
On the campaign trail, Kohl seems more laid-back than Grothman, a little less effusive. And yet, Kohl is a good listener, and his legal training shows: He slowly weighs what people are saying to him and answers in a concise, sometimes dramatic way, almost as if he is writing the concluding paragraph of a legal brief. At a late May speech to the Sheboygan County Labor Council, the slim, 5-foot-9 Kohl wore a sport coat, tie and blue jeans, and many in the crowd seemed to like their exclusive minute with him.
While Grothman has the advantage of incumbency, Kohl held an edge in the most recent campaign finance reports available at press time: $842,000 in cash on hand vs. Grothman’s $705,000, as of April 1. “He will probably spend more money than me on the campaign,” Grothman says. But, he added, “There’s no candidate who tries to meet more people face-to-face than I do.”
The super-charged campaign has some Democrats thinking that Grothman finally might lose an election. Democrats across the country have made inroads in territory won solidly by Trump in 2016, including taking two Wisconsin Senate seats in solid GOP districts in special elections in January and June. In April, Gov. Scott Walker warned of a potential “blue wave” in a fundraising appeal. Other seasoned politicians believe Grothman will be fine.
“It’s a whole new ballgame, and the district may not be as reliably Republican as it once was,” Ziegelbauer says. Trump’s actions “add great uncertainty,” he says. For example, the president’s steep tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel could increase costs and potentially cost jobs for businesses in Wisconsin, which is No. 2 among states in per capita manufacturing jobs.
Mark L. Harris, the Democratic Winnebago County executive who lost to Grothman in the race for the open seat in 2014, says he believes the 6th District has what he calls “good-government Republicans” who believe in balanced budgets and sound fiscal policies. “They recognize that there’s a legitimate role for government to make society operate smoothly and fairly,” Harris says. These voters fear that Republicans want to pay for the recent income tax decreases favoring the wealthy by cutting Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, Harris says, and they’re “at risk now” of turning on Grothman.
Will enough of them turn to Kohl, though, on Nov. 6? “In this district, it definitely helps if you have the ‘R’ in front of your name,” says Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel. “It would take an issue, some controversy on the national level, rather than on the local level, to propel a newcomer.”