State Sen. Mike Ellis announced on Friday he won't seek reelection just days after a secret recording surfaced of him discussing setting up an illegal political action committee.
Ellis told WTMJ Radio's Charlie Sykes on Friday morning that the secret recording was the “tipping point” in his decision not to run again, but that it's a decision he and his wife have contemplated for a while now.
“To be perfectly frank, this has been coming for some time,” he said. “The world has changed, and to be honest with you, I just don't fit in down there anymore.”
Ellis' announcement comes just two days after a secret audio recording surfaced where he can be heard talking about setting up a Super PAC to attack his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber.
Bernard Schaber says the open seat doesn't really change her plans. She said Ellis was responsible for what he said in that recording.
“He has served his constituents for a long time, and it's unfortunate that he's leaving in a negative cloud,” said Bernard Schaber.
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh political science Professor James Simmons said Ellis' departure sets up a wide-open Senate race in the 19th State Senate District for Republicans, many of whom viewed Ellis as too moderate.
"In many ways, this is the Republican Party eating its own,” said Simmons. “Because after all, this latest revelation came from James O'Keefe, a conservative activist from Project Veritas.”
Ellis was first elected to the Legislature in 1970, and has served in the Senate since 1982. He has served stints as majority leader and was the Senate's president the past two session. While Ellis has generally been a reliable Republican vote, he's clashed with conservatives in recent years on some big issues, such as the expansion of private school vouchers.
Other Candidates Expected To Run For Seat
In an interview conducted before Ellis' announcement, former Republican State Rep. Michelle Litjens said she thought support was growing for Ellis to leave.
“I know that my phone’s been ringing,” said Litjens. “People were not impressed with watching that video of Sen. Mike Ellis, and many people have said he’s been there a long time and perhaps it’s time for him to go.”
Litjens indicated that a number of Republicans might be interested in joining the race.
For instance, she said that there are “quite a few candidates” who are considering running for the open seat held by Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. Kaufert won his election for Neenah mayor earlier this month and Neenah lies in Ellis’ district.
Litjens, who resides in the Oshkosh area and is also represented by Ellis, was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and didn't seek reelection in 2012.
Asked whether she would have challenged Ellis, Litjens said “no.”
“My daughter has already made me promise that I’m not running until she’s out of high school,” she said.
Tony Palmeri, a communications professor at the UW-Oshkosh and media columnist for the Fox Valley Scene newspaper, said he hopes people will find out soon who put Project Veritas up to the operation. (Likewise, Palmeri spoke before Ellis' announcement.)
He also expected conservatives to make some noise in the district’s upcoming election.
“It would not surprise me at all if we see now a Republican candidate step forward to the right of Mike Ellis to challenge him in the Senate district. And it probably will be someone who supports expanding vouchers statewide,” he said.
Editor's Note: WPR's Bill Martens contributed to a portion of this report.