Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Congressional Primaries Can Be Unpredictable

Sensenbrenner seat could draw a wide field.

By - Sep 23rd, 2019 10:33 am
Western front of the U.S. Capitol. Public domain.

Western front of the U.S. Capitol.

Factoid from Wisconsin’s political history: Milwaukee-area voters almost didn’t send Jim Sensenbrenner to Washington.

Sensenbrenner, who has represented Wisconsin’s 5th District in the U.S. House since 1979, will not seek re-election next year. He is 76.

Sensenbrenner, whose temper can be triggered by fools or perceived indignities, drew the boundaries of Wisconsin’s U.S House districts for decades.

For example, when Sensenbrenner redrew northwest Wisconsin’s 7th District in 2011, he said he had to boost Democrats in the 3rd District, represented by Democrat Rep. Ron Kind, of La Crosse, so there would be more Republicans in the 7th District of Rep. Sean Duffy, who is resigning today for family reasons.

But, in the Sept. 12, 1978, primary, 5th District Republicans almost picked someone else.

Then a state senator, Sensenbrenner beat another Waukesha County state lawmaker, Rep. Susan Shannon Engeleiter, by only 589 votes – 29,584 to 28,995. A third Republican candidate, Robert Brunner, got 9,746 votes.

Sensenbrenner’s 40-year run in Congress started with a winning margin of less than 1% of GOP primary voters. Engeleiter then served in the State Senate and lost a U.S. Senate campaign against Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.

Once you get elected to the U.S. House in Wisconsin, you can usually stay there as long as you want.

Which makes this point: The most interesting fights for Wisconsin U.S. House seats often occur in the primaries. One reason for that is those jobs just don’t come open very often.

All this makes the emerging primary fights to replace Sensenbrenner and Duffy, whose successor will be chosen in a special election that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will set, all the more interesting.

In the 5th District, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, announced last week that he will run for Sensenbrenner’s seat. Another GOP state senator, Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, is also expected to run.

A potential wild card in the 5th District Republican primary is Matt Walker, the son of two-term Gov. Scott Walker.

Matt Walker is 25 – exactly how old his dad was when he won a special 1993 election to serve in the Assembly.

Walker talked up his son as a potential candidate for Congress – much higher on the political ladder than the Assembly – before Fitzgerald announced his candidacy.

There is another legendary story about a primary fight for a seat in Congress.

In 1992, Russ Feingold was a little-known Democratic state senator from the Madison suburb of Middleton. In the Capitol, Feingold had crusaded to ban bovine growth hormone (BGH) from milk and been a predictable Dane County liberal.

Feingold and four other Democrats – including Milwaukee-area Congressman Jim Moody, who had been in office 10 years, and Milwaukee-area business executive Joe Checota – decided to run against Republican Sen. Bob Kasten.

Feingold painted campaign promises on his garage door and promised to hold listening sessions in all 72 counties.

But Feingold’s campaign got no traction until Moody and Checota – in a preview of today’s eye-for-eye campaigns – got in a nasty, insult-trading fight that offended many Democratic voters.

The stunning result: In the Sept. 8, 1992, Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Feingold got 367,746 votes; Moody, 74,472, and Checota, 71,570.

Quietly upset Democratic voters gave Feingold, who went on to upset Kasten and serve three terms in the U.S. Senate, 71% of all votes cast for the three most credentialed candidates.

Other primaries that led to long careers by U.S. House members from Wisconsin:

*March 1969: Democrats from northwest Wisconsin gave then-state lawmaker David Obey 18,895 votes in a special-election primary – a landslide victory that started Obey’s 41 years in the House.

*September 1996: Kind won a five-way Democratic primary in western Wisconsin’s 3rd District with 13,685 votes – 5,103 votes more than Lee Rasch. Kind has not been seriously challenged since then.

*September 1998: 28-year-old Paul Ryan got four times the votes of his opponent in a Republican primary in the 1st District, starting Ryan’s 20-year House career.

In August 2018, Republican Bryan Steil, of Janesville, got 30,885 votes, easily beating four other candidates in the 1st District primary to replace Ryan.

The lesson? The rules are different in Congressional primaries.

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

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