In a shakeup, Wisconsin Republicans choose state Sen. Devin LeMahieu as their leader

Sen. Devin LeMahieu, a Republican from Oostburg, has been picked as Senate Majority Leader.

MADISON – Republicans in the state Senate chose Devin LeMahieu on Thursday to run their caucus now that state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is heading to Congress.

LeMahieu, a second-term senator from Oostburg, in January will take over from Fitzgerald, who has led the Senate Republicans for an unusually long 14 years. LeMahieu said he had learned from Fitzgerald and would try to work with his colleagues in a similar fashion. 

“I think we have pretty similar personalities where we’re pretty laid back,” LeMahieu said after the vote.

Fitzgerald, of Juneau, was elected Tuesday to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in the 5th Congressional District. Sensenbrenner is retiring after more than 40 years in office. Fitzgerald said he would remain as the majority leader until he is sworn into Congress in January.

LeMahieu beat Senate President Roger Roth of Appleton for the job of majority leader. Roth had been viewed as a likely successor to Fitzgerald because the two had worked closely together, both on running the Senate and conducting campaigns. 

After the vote, Roth said his peers had made a good decision in choosing LeMahieu.

“I think what they were saying today is that they want to grow and expand upon the wonderful things Fitzgerald has done,” Roth said. 

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield

Also Thursday, Republicans picked Sen. Chris Kapenga of Delafield to replace Roth as Senate president.

The Senate president presides over Senate sessions, decides which committees get bills and helps decide which legislation to bring to the floor.

“I love rules and procedures — I just love that type of thing,” Kapenga said.

Rounding out the leadership team is Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, who Republicans chose to continue as assistant majority leader. 

Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac.

Changes will be coming to the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, in part because some members are leaving the Legislature, LeMahieu said. He did not say whether he would keep Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills on the committee as co-chairwoman. 

“I think we have a couple different qualified people that could be co-chair in our caucus,” he said.

Darling, who won re-election Tuesday, had been planning to run for Senate president against Kapenga ahead of Thursday’s leadership meeting. At some point, she dropped out during the closed-door leadership vote, according to her office.

LeMahieu said he was considering whether to convene a lame-duck session in November or December to take up legislation that the Assembly has passed but that the Senate didn’t get to before the coronavirus pandemic emerged this spring.

LeMahieu said he liked some of those bills but wanted to talk to his colleagues before deciding what to do.

When the senators meet — whether it’s this year or in January —  they could consider whether to confirm Andrea Palm as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ health services secretary.

Republican senators have declined to confirm her after nearly two years on the job, and some of them have called for pushing her out of her post because they believe she has put too many limits on individuals and businesses in response to COVID-19.

Democrats have said it would be irresponsible to fire the state’s top health official in the middle of a pandemic.

LeMahieu said he wanted to talk to his colleagues before deciding whether to bring her confirmation up for a vote.

“I don’t want to get out in front of myself here before I have a chance to sit down with people,” he said. 

LeMahieu and other Republican senators have raised concerns about some of Evers’ coronavirus response plans, arguing he didn’t have the power to establish policies without getting the approval of the Legislature.

That issue is being fought out in court, and LeMahieu said he wasn’t sure whether senators would try to address the dispute by taking any action on the Senate floor.

“I still think it’s unfortunate that he’s operating unilaterally and not including the Legislature through the rules process,” LeMahieu said of Evers. 

The Senate is coming into the next two-year session with a commanding 21-12 majority after picking up two seats in Tuesday’s election.

Their majority will temporarily shrink to 20-12 in January when Fitzgerald moves to Congress. Fitzgerald’s successor will be chosen in a special election, but the district is expected to remain in Republican hands because of its conservative tilt.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.