By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Numerous Republicans were weighing the chance Thursday to run for a congressional district in Wisconsin that’s a conservative hotbed and key to President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes.
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner announced Wednesday that he won’t run for a 22nd term representing the suburban Milwaukee area, long the heart of Wisconsin’s conservative base. Running up the numbers in the northern and western suburban Milwaukee counties has long been the lynchpin for successful statewide Republican candidates.
Trump underperformed there in 2016, while winning Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes. Part of his strategy to win Wisconsin in 2020 relies on performing better with the voters in Sensenbrenner’s district who turned out more strongly for former Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election bid in 2018 than they did for Trump in 2016.
Over Sensenbrenner’s 42-year hold on the seat, the district has long been home to some of Wisconsin’s most prominent conservatives and has served as a launching pad for the political careers of many, including Walker.
“There are a lot of important areas of the state, but this area … is a crucial building block,” said Republican strategist Brian Reisinger.
The list of potential candidates is long. But one, former state senator and 2018 Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir, tried to get out ahead of the pack on Thursday by publicly edging closer to announcing a run than any others.
“I’m strongly considering the opportunity,” Vukmir, of Brookfield, said in a text message. “Congressman Sensenbrenner has enormous shoes to fill, he’ll be missed. I look forward to making a decision in the coming days.”
If Vukmir gets in, she would immediately be the front-runner, said Paul Farrow, the Waukesha County executive who is also considering a run and plans to make a decision later this month.
“She still has incredible name recognition,” Farrow said. “She is one who has been a great voice for the conservative movement and her constituents.”
Numerous others are weighing a possible bid, including state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau; state Sens. Dale Kooyenga, of Brookfield, and Chris Kapenga, of Delafield; and former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, who lost to Vukmir in the Senate GOP primary last year.
Kapenga, 47, said he was “definitely looking at” running, but that this is a time to celebrate Sensenbrenner and not to look toward who may replace him.
Nicholson tweeted on Wednesday that “There will be time to make a decision about this race later.” He declined to elaborate on Thursday.
None of the other potential candidates immediately returned messages Thursday.
Democrat Tom Palzewicz, an entrepreneur and Navy veteran, said within minutes of Sensenbrenner’s retirement announcement late Wednesday that he would run. Palzewicz lost to Sensenbrenner in 2018, getting just 38% of the vote compared with 62% for Sensenbrenner.
On the Republican side, Kapenga said he didn’t expect anyone to be able to clear the field of potential candidates.
“I don’t think anybody would want to step up and try to push anybody else out,” Kapenga said. “We need to make sure we’re not creating enemies of each other, whoever gets into that race.”
Kapenga said he had no timeline for making a decision.
Reisinger, the Republican strategist who has worked on the campaigns of both Walker and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, said candidates need to judge the political environment generally, who they may face in a primary and the opportunity they have to potentially serve that congressional district for a long time.
The retirement could be a once-in-a-generation chance for many Republicans who weren’t even born when the 76-year-old Sensenbrenner was first elected to the state Legislature in 1968.
“There’s a generation of Republicans who have seen Congressman Sensenbrenner’s service, seen that conservative district, known its importance and known one day it would open,” Reisinger said. “There’s a lot of interest and excitement around it because of the big change that was unexpected.”
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