Who Will Replace Sensenbrenner in the 5th Congressional District?

Wisconsin will soon have a new congressional representative.

Three pundits believe that Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald will waltz through to victory in the Aug. 11 primary election and the Nov. 3 general election and replace long-time Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner in the 5th Congressional District.

Besides Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, Republican Clifford DeTemple, a Milwaukee businessman and a veteran Coast Guard senior reserve officer, and Democrat Tom Palzewicz, of Brookfield, who owns an Elm Grove business, are in the race to succeed Sensenbrenner. 

In the State Legislature for 25 years, Fitzgerald has delivered on conservative policy ideas and, more recently, has helped maintain a substantial Republican majority in the legislature, says Bill McCoshen, managing partner of Capitol Consultants in Madison and GOP strategist. Fitzgerald is also endorsed by Sensenbrenner. 

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“The high-profile Republican people have enormous respect for Fitz in those two areas,” McCoshen adds. Compared to former State Sen. Leah Vukmir, former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson and State Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), “Fitzgerald has a longer and stronger record than any of them. They recognize it and respect him for it.”

After Sensenbrenner announced his retirement in May, at least 11 well-known Republicans considered running in what is believed to be the most Republican-leaning congressional district in Wisconsin. But all declined to do so. Sensenbrenner has held the seat since 1979. 

Nicholson, for example, says his supporters and friends advised him to wait for the 2022 elections for governor and the U.S. Senate, “knowing that I can win a statewide general election. I also think that Scott Fitzgerald has served his state and country well, and I was happy to endorse him.”  

Nonetheless, in the Republican primary, DeTemple, whose business provides measuring systems for land surveyors, construction companies and police departments, and who lives in Jackson, is challenging Fitzgerald in the Republican primary. On most issues, the conservative DeTemple, 52, says he agrees with Fitzgerald, but does differ with him on the need for term limits – he wants a four-term limit for congressmen.

DeTemple argues that life-long politicians have trouble saying ‘no’ to lobbyists whose campaign contributions help them stay in office.

“I’ve seen too many politicians not stand up for what is right, but for what their lobbyists want them to do,” DeTemple says.

As for Congress legislating changes in how police departments are run, he says, “I don’t think that any lawmakers should make laws against the police without having first-hand experience working with police.” 

The 5th District covers all of Washington and Jefferson Counties plus parts of Dodge, Milwaukee and Walworth Counties and most of the northern half of Waukesha County, including the City of Waukesha.

Having only two Republicans seeking a vacant Congressional seat is startling, says Mordecai Lee, a political science emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former state legislator. When Democrat Congressman Henry Reuss of Milwaukee announced his retirement in 1982, 15 Democrats sought to replace him.

Lee recalled that comedian and philosopher Will Rogers said, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

The Wisconsin Republicans, though, have another playbook, Lee says.

“When a Congressional seat in a safe district becomes vacant, politicians normally salivate for such an opportunity,” he adds. “But for the GOP to make a consensus decision and say that ‘Scott Fitzgerald is the guy’ shows that this is a powerful political machine that is very organized in its stability and its cohesiveness.”

Palzewicz, 57, hopes to shatter that self-assurance. He owns a business consultant firm and lives in Brookfield. He ran against Sensenbrenner in 2018 and garnered only 35 percent of the vote.

But Palzewicz claims that the 5th District is changing politically. In 2018, Democrat Robyn Vining won a seat in the 14th Assembly District, which includes Wauwatosa and eastern Waukesha County.  That same year, Democrat Dennis McBride got 48.5 percent of the vote in the contest for the 13th Assembly District, which includes Elm Grove and portions of Milwaukee, Brookfield and Wauwatosa. 

And in the last three votes for governor, the number of people in Waukesha County who voted for the Democratic candidate increased from 52,608 to 72,131. The Democrats lost, but not quite as badly.  In 2018, Tony Evers got 33% of the vote in Waukesha County. 

“The Democrats were quiet in Waukesha County,” Palzewicz says. “But now they are loud and proud.”

He also claims that the “GOP has been the party of denial in the pandemic and has provided no leadership.” In Fitzgerald, “I see a State Senate majority leader who is an obstructionist when it comes to working with Gov. Evers in handling the pandemic and in gun-violence legislation.”

Palzewicz maintains that the voters want to elect legislators who get things done for the people, including enacting universal background checks for gun buyers, legalizing medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid. He also champions lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 50, so that people could start their own businesses without worrying about losing their company-sponsored health insurance.

Fitzgerald, Palzewicz says, has refused “to call a special session to deal with the pandemic and to consider the Black Lives Matter issues.”

Repeated attempts to interview Fitzgerald, who is 56, failed. A spokeswoman for him said he was “very busy.” Sensenbrenner also did not return a reporter’s many telephone calls. 

Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, doubts that Fitzgerald’s Senate leadership actions have adversely affected him with Republican voters, “and the average voters aren’t tuned into the race just yet. He’s widely acceptable and admired by a lot of Republican voters.”

Would becoming one of 435 congressmen be a step down for a State Senate power such as Fitzgerald? It depends, Burden says.

“I think that the national platform really allows a legislator to take on a wider range of issues,” Burden says, adding that Fitzgerald could be a quiet workhorse in Washington, or he could make himself a media presence on cable TV. 

 And, Burden points out, that the Republicans have basically accomplished what they wanted to Wisconsin. They passed Act 10, which restricts state employee labor negotiations, cut taxes, passed more restrictive voter identification laws and gerrymandered the voting districts.

“Maybe it’s time for him to move onto a bigger stage,” Burden says.     

Could the Presidential election sway the 5th District Congressional vote?

Burden doubts it. In this district, he says, President Donald Trump would “have to be in a really difficult position so that the presidential race could help tip the Congressional race to a Democrat. Voters will become aware of these lower ballot races as we get closer to the election. But, for now, this race is not a top priority.”