It’s been nearly two months since U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who has held the seat since 1979 and is one of the longest serving members of Congress, announced he would not seek another term in the southeastern Wisconsin district. Months remain for other candidates to announce, but so far Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has successfully racked up GOP endorsements rather than Republican challengers.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, "Fitz," as he's known in the halls of the Capitol, said he hasn’t been surprised by the early success of his campaign and credited much of it to his experience and conservative politics.
"It’s kind of what I expected," Fitzgerald said. "I think that’s a testament to the many years I’ve been in the Legislature. … I did a lot of the heavy lifting in that caucus on some of the more conservative social issues."
But his success in leading Republicans also has become a lightning rod for criticism from across the aisle both in the eight years he was part of the GOP’s trifecta of power — an era that also included Gov. Scott Walker and both his brother and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and current Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — as well as the Majority Leader’s recent clashes with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Mike Tate, who served as state Democratic Party chairman during a period when Fitzgerald led the charge to reduce collective bargaining rights for public employees, restrict abortion access, cut taxes and eliminate mandatory private sector union membership, credited Fitzgerald as an effective majority leader.
"I don’t like what he did, I didn’t always like how he did it, but you can’t argue with his effectiveness," Tate said. "I have virtually no doubt in my mind that Scott Fitzgerald can be the next member of Congress from the Fifth (Congressional District)."
A narrow field
Brian Fraley, who has been working in Republican circles since 1992 and has spent the last five years with strategic communications firm Edge Messaging, said Sensenbrenner’s retirement provides interested candidates with "a once in every other generation opportunity."
Several potential GOP candidates have formally passed on a bid for the 5th Congressional District seat. Many of them, including Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; former Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield; Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow and former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson have all endorsed Fitzgerald.
Endorsements from other notable Republicans include former Gov. Tommy Thompson and state Reps Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, and John Jagler, R-Watertown.
"The fact that the field isn’t crowded right now is a testament to two things," Fraley said. "One, it might not be as appealing to be a member of Congress as it was maybe a decade ago … and two, the skill and respect people have for Fitzgerald."
Fitzgerald downplayed the idea that his early announcement for the seat was anything strategic.
"The one thing I thought about announcing early was, this is not a big question for me. I'm doing this and there's no real reason to wait," he said. "I'm not sure if it kept anybody out or change anybody's mind. All I know is that for me it was a no-brainer.”
Fraley said there still is plenty of time for candidates to emerge before the June 1 filing deadline. However, he added those hoping to mount a credible campaign against Fitzgerald’s growing momentum will need to announce before the end of January.
Democrat Tom Palzewicz, an entrepreneur and Navy veteran who lost to Sensenbrenner in 2018, also is running in the GOP-friendly district.
"The closer we get the steeper the climb is going to be," Fraley said. "With no competition right now, he is not being pressed to come out with positions on issues or to somehow differentiate himself from an opponent. The longer this goes, the more to Majority Leader Fitzgerald’s advantage it is."
Tate also spoke to Fitzgerald’s effectiveness in the Senate as a key factor in the upcoming Congressional race.
Early life and first election
Fitzgerald, 55, was born in Chicago and moved to Wisconsin when his dad became police chief in Hustisford, where Fitzgerald attended high school.
After graduating from UW-Oshkosh with a degree in journalism, spending time as owner of the Dodge County Independent News and reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Fitzgerald said he "got the bug" for politics when helping his father run for Dodge County Sheriff.
In 1994, Fitzgerald, then chairman of the Dodge County Republican Party, won Wisconsin’s south-central 13th Senate District after a three-way primary that included 14-year incumbent Barbara Lorman and restaurant operator Herb Feil.
In a primary that focused largely on the issue of abortion rights, Lorman was considered the most moderate of the three, while Fitzgerald and Feil ran anti-abortion campaigns.
For the next 25 years, Fitzgerald would hold a firm grip on the mostly rural, strongly conservative district that includes the communities of Oconomowoc, Watertown and Fox Lake.
Margaret Farrow, who was Assistant Senate Majority Leader when Fitzgerald was elected, recalled the freshman senator as "quiet, interested and very patriotic."
"He listened very carefully," said Farrow, who has endorsed Fitzgerald. "We have some people who come in and immediately want to be heard and run everything, but he was not one of those. He wanted to make sure he had his feet on the ground and wanted to make sure he understood issues before he spoke."
Fitzgerald spent a brief stint as majority leader in 2004, then became minority leader from 2007 to 2010 after Democrats took control of the Legislature. After the Tea Party wave of 2010, the GOP took control of the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office and Fitzgerald has served as the top Senate Republican since.
Farrow described Fitzgerald as one of the Legislature’s "less-rigid" leaders.
"He’s ready to listen to everybody and reach across the aisle," Farrow said.
Fitzgerald said he values bipartisan discussion, but added he isn’t afraid to push when it comes to conservative issues such as abortion or tax cuts.
"I think I do try to work across the aisle to kind of make sure that the institution continues to function," Fitzgerald said. "But I've also had my battles and I like to pick my battles and I've had great success in that arena. I think it's because of my ability to figure out when to hit the gas and when to pump the brakes."
Some of those battles over the years have included the senator's push for a now-invalidated constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005 and efforts to ban partial-birth abortions and defund Planned Parenthood.
The Walker era
Fitzgerald’s battles in the Legislature also have gone down as the state’s most controversial moments in recent memory.
In 2011, Fitzgerald helped play a role in the passage of Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
As Republicans pushed forward with the governor’s proposal, thousands of protesters amassed at the Capitol for weeks. In an effort to halt passage of the bill, 14 Senate Democrats, many accusing Republicans of bullying tactics, fled to Illinois for weeks to avoid a vote on the bill. At the time, Fitzgerald said the missing Democrats were pushing the state to "the edge of a constitutional crisis," and at one point ordered for their forcible detention in an effort to get lawmakers back to the Capitol.
Ultimately, Republicans removed fiscal elements of the bill to bypass the state’s quorum requirement and passed the bill.
Fitzgerald said he stands by Act 10, but did acknowledge the resulting "hangover" and growing partisan divide it has created in the state.
"I do feel like it diminishes it seems year by year that goes by, but it shook the state from top to bottom," Fitzgerald said. "It changed the dynamic of the relationships … and it’s going to take a long time for that to go away."
Four years later, Fitzgerald was a key advocate to push through a right-to-work bill that prohibited private sector unions from automatically collecting dues from bargaining unit employees.
"It was painful … There was some fallout because some of the private sector unions that supported the Republicans during Act 10, now were going to be directly affected when right-to-work happened," Fitzgerald said. "Being able to bring right-to-work to life … that's a heavy, heavy lift in the face of opposition from people you've considered friends and sometimes political allies. That's tough stuff."
The Republican trifecta ended at the start of 2019 after Democrats swept all statewide offices, but Republicans retained large majorities in the Assembly and Senate — thanks largely to gerrymandered legislative districts Fitzgerald helped pass in 2011. The resulting dynamic has led to regular partisan battles and repeated efforts by Republicans to hamstring the governor’s power.
Even before Evers took office, Republicans in a late-night lame-duck session passed legislation to limit Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul’s authority to settle cases and prevented Evers from appointing a new Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO until September.
In October, Evers called for a special session on bills to require universal background checks for all firearm purchases in Wisconsin and implement laws to remove firearms from people perceived to be threats. Such bills have received overwhelming support from Democrats and recent Marquette University Law School poll found 80% of Wisconsinites support expanded background checks — including nearly 70% of gun owners.
Fitzgerald has refused to take up a vote on the matter. On Thursday the Senate adjourned the special session immediately after calling it to order, avoiding discussion and a formal vote.
Fitzgerald also has maintained his stance in opposition to any form of marijuana legalization, despite proposed legislation introduced last month by Democrats to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and a bipartisan medical marijuana bill announced in September.
In the Assembly, Vos has said he is open to discussion on medical marijuana, but Fitzgerald has remained firm that he does not plan to bend on any legalization.
Another point of contention between the governor and Senate Republicans has been with Evers' cabinet appointments, several of which have been serving all year without formal Senate approval.
"He has completely broken tradition and political norms," liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now executive director Analiese Eicher said of Fitzgerald. "I would honestly say he’s doing the opposite of reaching across the aisle. It’s like he’s put up a blockade."
Run for Congress
Fitzgerald said the time felt right to run for Congress after hearing that Sensenbrenner was planning to retire.
"The one thing I was curious about, and I think I've got the answer to it, is whether or not my work as leader in the Senate has transcended my Senate seat and put me in a good position with people that have watched my work over the years," he said. "I think the answer to that is clearly yes."
As a member of Congress, Fitzgerald said he would continue his support of President Donald Trump, someone the Senator backed early in his 2016 presidential run.
Fitzgerald proclaimed he was proudly on board the "Trump train" three years ago, even as other Republicans mounted a "Never Trump" effort that was particularly strong in Sensenbrenner's district. Trump lost the state's Republican primary but won the general election, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Wisconsin in 32 years.
Fitzgerald, who has deemed ongoing impeachment inquiries regarding the president as a "witch hunt" said his support for Trump has only grown, due in part to what he described as a "roaring" economy.
In Congress, Fitzgerald said he would want to put an emphasis on addressing federal debt, but also acknowledged that, if elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Fitzgerald could find himself in the minority party, something he hasn’t experienced in almost a decade.
Fitzgerald said his plan would be to try to work both sides of the aisle, while maintaining his focus on the conservative social issues he’s been pushing for in Wisconsin for the last 25 years.
"Going from being majority leader for all these years to being a freshman in DC would be maybe a shift," he said. “I always joke the only one job that you have when in the minority is to get into the majority.”