A leader in the 20th-century Progressive movement, Robert Marion La Follette was a U.S. representative, governor, and U.S. senator from Wisconsin, and an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency. La Follette was born in the town of Primrose, Wisconsin, the son of settlers from Kentucky. Admitted to the bar in 1880, he entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1885. After three terms in the House, he was elected governor of Wisconsin and served from 1901 to 1906. As governor, La Follette pushed for a direct primary system, tax reform legislation, railroad rate control, and other measures known as the "Wisconsin idea," collectively aimed at weakening the control of party bosses and turning over public administration to popularly elected leaders.
Nicknamed "Fighting Bob," La Follette continued to champion Progressive causes during a Senate career extending from 1906 until his death in 1925. He strongly supported the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators, as well as domestic measures advocated by President Woodrow Wilson's administration, including federal railroad regulation and laws protecting workers rights. La Follette worked to generate wider public accountability for the Senate. He advocated more frequent and better publicized roll call votes and the publication of information about campaign expenditures.
Early in his Senate career, the Wisconsin Republican broke with leaders of the Grand Old Party and rarely voted along party lines thereafter. In 1911 he helped found the National Progressive Republican League, whose members rallied around him as the logical candidate to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from President William Howard Taft. However, La Follette lost his bid when many supporters switched their allegiance to Theodore Roosevelt who, after failing to win the Republican nomination, ran unsuccessfully on the third-party Progressive, or Bull Moose, ticket in 1912.
La Follette led a small but influential group of Progressives in the Senate. As a result of the close margin between the two major parties, the Progressives held power out of proportion to their small numbers. Also the leader of the pacifist block in the Senate, La Follette opposed American involvement in World War I. In 1924 he was nominated for president by the League for Progressive Political Action and polled five million votes. Exhausted by the rigors of the campaign, La Follette died the following year in Washington, D.C. His son, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., succeeded him in the Senate, thus carrying on the reform tradition.