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More than 50 years ago, at a point when the Republican Party of Wisconsin had taken a turn toward extremism that threatened to divide the state along the ugliest and most destructive lines, Bill Kraus and a brave band of political visionaries saved their party and their state.

The political history of Wisconsin is poorly recalled by those who fail to recognize the great ideological battles that have played out in both major parties. But Bill remembered. And that is one of the many reasons why his death last month at the age of 92 was such a loss for a state that can ill afford to be without his strategic good sense and humane vision for what is possible in politics.

Kraus, whose legacy will be honored today at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, is well recalled as the Common Cause board member who refused to surrender the old-school Wisconsin faith that politics should be about ideas rather than money.

Yet the image of Kraus as a genteel commentator on electoral misdeeds and possibilities fails to capture the whole of the man. He understood politics as “the only game for adults,” and he practiced it with a rare combination of strategic savvy and common decency — a fact confirmed by the essential role he played in securing the enactment of the first-in-the-nation gay rights legislation that his boss, Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, signed in 1982. But Kraus was also a scrappy ideological battler who, for many years, was in the forefront of the fight to prevent the Republican Party from going to extremes.

That was no small battle in the early 1960s, when Kraus helped organize the historic 1964 gubernatorial campaign of Warren Knowles. A moderate former state legislator and lieutenant governor, Knowles had been thwarted in his efforts to win higher office by a far-right party machine made up of Joe McCarthy dead-enders and wink-and-nod fellow travelers with the Appleton-based John Birch Society. In 1960 and 1962, the party’s losing gubernatorial nominee was Milwaukee businessman Philip Kuehn, who campaigned as “Barry Goldwater Jr.” and said it would be “un-American” for him to renounce the support he got from the Birchers.

Moderate Republican leader Wilbur Renk warned that “right-wing extremism” was coming to dominate the GOP and Wisconsin, while Democratic Gov. John Reynolds dismissed his Republican opposition as “the most reactionary state political organization in the nation… a group of fanatical right wingers.”

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Even as Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty” campaign was taking over the national party and setting it on course for disastrous defeat in 1964, Knowles, Ody Fish and Kraus grabbed the Wisconsin GOP back from the right and waged a campaign that drew national notice as it first secured the gubernatorial nod for Knowles and then — against all odds — secured a Republican governorship in one of the party’s few wins in a year of Democratic landslides.

It frustrated Kraus in later years as the state GOP veered back toward the right because he knew, from experience, the power of a moderate Republican appeal to the state where the party of Lincoln was founded.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times