Insiders ponder post-Fitzgerald Capitol

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SINCE 2004, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald has either led or been a leader of Wisconsin Senate Republicans. He's been majority leader for eight years.

But Fitzgerald is now running for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House that Republican Jim Sensenbrenner will give up when he retires next year.

As a senator since 1995, and an integral part of GOP elections, fund raising and public policy decisions for more than 20 years, Fitzgerald is the odds-on favorite to win that heavily Republican 5th District.

Which has started the latest, fascinating Capitol betting game: If Republicans keep Senate control in the 2021-22 session, who will be the first new majority leader in 10 years?

FIRST, consider the premise that Republicans will keep control of the Senate in November 2020 elections. They now control that chamber by a 19-14 margin.

Eight GOP seats will up November 2020, but one of those senators - Tom Tiffany, of Hazelhurst - is leaving the state Senate to run for the 7th District U.S. House seat open because Republican Sean Duffy resigned.

Of Republican senators expected to seek re-election next year, three - Alberta Darling, Duey Stroebel and David Craig - were not opposed in 2016.

The four others - Rob Cowles, Luther Olsen, Dan Feyen and Pat Testin - had winning margins in 2016 that ranged from 65% (Cowles) to 52% (Testin).

FOUR Senate seats are most in play next year:

• Testin in the 24th District and Feyen in 18th District, since both will be finishing their first terms and won by the tightest margins in 2016.

• The 12th District, which includes most of northeast Wisconsin, now represented by Tiffany.

• The 10th District in western Wisconsin, where Democrat Sen. Patty Schachtner will try to hold a seat Republicans controlled for decades until Schachtner's special-election win in 2018.

If state Senate Republicans lost one seat next year, they would still control the Senate by a comfortable 18-15 margin. Who would get 10 votes to be the next majority leader?

TRADITION favors Senate President Roger Roth, of Appleton, who won a tough re-election fight last year. As the Senate's presiding officer, Roth has been the second most powerful GOP leader.

But Roth may be perceived as potentially too moderate by the most conservative GOP senators, especially if the party's strategy remains going to war with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on every issue.

The five most conservative Republican senators are Steve Nass, of Whitewater; Craig, of Big Bend; Andre Jacque, of DePere; Stroebel, of Cedarburg, and Chris Kapenga, of Delafield.

Those conservatives may also wonder if Roth, as majority leader, would be tough enough in negotiations with veteran Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who is expected to return as leader Assembly Republicans in the 2021-22 session,

ROTH, 41, also has a young family, which could limit his majority-leader time in the Capitol.

GOP conservatives could push Feyen, of Fond du Lac, to run for majority leader, assuming Feyen survives his re-election bid next year.

Although Feyen is now assistant majority leader, he lacks legislative experience. He has only been a senator for three years - a handicap in a building that rewards seniority - and not served on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC).

Other potential Republican candidates for majority leader?

Darling is happy being co-chair of JFC. Olsen, another member of JFC, has passed up chances to run for leadership in the past and has thought about retiring.

Would Sen. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green, consider running for majority leader? He is a JFC member, an accountant, presides over the Senate in Roth's absence and also won a tough re-election contest last year.

QUESTION: Would policy wonk Marklein want to spend so much time on two other requirements for majority leader - vetting and recruiting candidates, and fund raising? Maybe not.

Does Sen. Van Wanggaard, of Racine, want to be majority leader?

Wanggaard has never been on JFC, but has other partisan scars. First elected in 2010, the retired police officer was ousted in a post-Act 10 recall in 2012, but won the seat back in 2014 and was re-elected last year.

Asked to pick the next majority leader, one veteran lobbyist said Roth has the inside track, assuming he raises cash and campaigns hard for his peers next year.

What's it all mean? Insiders are already handicapping a post-Fitzgerald Capitol.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com.

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