Democrats have found an opening to pick up a congressional district after GOP primary voters nominated a state senator many on the left see as too controversial. 

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-Campbellsport, won the Republican primary by 219 votes, beating out state Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan. The two were part of the four-way GOP primary in the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac.

Grothman, who has made national headlines with controversial comments, faces Democrat Mark Harris, the Winnebago County executive, in the November general election.

Scot Ross, executive director of liberal-leaning group One Wisconsin Now, said Grothman’s nomination makes the seat much more competitive.

“What [Republicans] have done in this particular race is they have taken what was likely a slam-dunk seat for the Republicans for someone more below the radar, as Joe Leibham is,” Ross said. “But the fact is they nominated Glenn Grothman, and that now makes this a real dogfight.”

Petri decided to retire shortly after Grothman announced he would challenge the longtime congressman in the GOP primary.

At that point, a top election forecaster moved the seat from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, wrote at the time “this is probably not the right year for Democrats to flip” the congressional seat.

Kondik noted President Barack Obama lost the district in 2012, making it unlikely for Democrats to win the seat in this year’s midterm elections, which typically see lower voter turnout. He also wrote GOP candidates who are too conservative have lost U.S. Senate races at times, pointing to Todd Akin’s 2012 loss in Missouri, but that “has not been as big a factor in House races.”

Sabato’s Crystal Ball has not changed its “Likely Republican” prediction since Grothman won the GOP nomination.

Michael Wagner, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said more extreme members increasingly replace incumbents leaving Congress.

“Congressman Petri moderated a bit toward the end of his term, whereas most new members of Congress are a bit more extreme than returning members,” Wagner said in an email.

Grothman said in an interview he was feeling confident heading into the race following his August primary victory.

He said his primary focus would be on government regulation, the welfare system and government spending.

“We’re focusing on incessant federal government regulation, which lacks common sense in asserting both education and business,” Grothman said. “We’re focusing on a welfare system that is hurting families and destroying the work ethic, and we’re focusing on excessive government spending which is destroying the value of dollar.”

Both candidates have plans for curbing student debt, an issue that Petri has focused on in Congress.

Grothman has been a vocal opponent of all tuition increases in Wisconsin, and seeks to introduce “proven, free-market principles into the higher education system,” according to his campaign website.

“By allowing student debt to be restructured under bankruptcy like most other debts, universities will be forced to take a students’ ability to repay their loans into consideration when setting the price for tuition,” Grothman writes on his campaign website.

Harris’ approach to battle student debt is to allow students to be able to refinance and get lower market interest rates after graduating, he said in an interview.

Harris wants the federal government to incentivize states to either maintain their current level of budgetary support or increase their percentage of support, decreasing the financial burdens to students, he said.

“Nowadays, more typically the states are only picking up 20 percent and student tuition and fees are picking up 80 percent of the cost of public universities,” Harris said. “And that’s what explains the fourfold increase in tuition. … It’s just a shame that the states have lost sight [that] investing in public universities is an investment in the future.”

The general election for the congressional race, along with the state’s seven other congressional seats, is Nov. 4.