In Wisconsin, 'Stop the Steal' Still Roiling GOP Politics
'This disconnect between the state Republican leadership and the elected Republican officials could not be greater.'
MADISON, Wisconsin—On Tuesday, Republicans marched on the Wisconsin State Capitol in an effort to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election. But this was not simply a group of disgruntled private citizens waving Trump flags, and the event shows that the last election will undoubtedly influence the upcoming midterms.
At a noon rally, gubernatorial candidate Tim Ramthun addressed supporters, demanding the state legislature do something it has no power to do: “rescind” the state’s 10 electoral votes cast for Joe Biden in 2020. Ramthun, a state representative from a rural area north of Milwaukee, has become the state’s primary supporter of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election—the same election in which Ramthun himself was elected—was stolen from Donald Trump.
“I’m not conspiracy,” Ramthun told the crowd of about 200 people gathered in the same rotunda pro-union activists occupied a decade ago to protest then-Gov. Scott Walker’s changes to organized labor bargaining rights. “I want justice and closure on the details of the mechanics of our process,” he said.
The state’s legislative attorneys have said it is impossible for the legislature to “decertify” the 2020 election, but Ramthun claims he has talked to constitutional attorneys around the country who disagree.
“If any one of them would have said, right out of the gate, ‘Ramthun, the [Legislature’s] memos, they’re right on, they’re 100 percent golden and there’s nothing you can do, I woulda said to everybody, ‘Hey, I tried and I’m wrong. Issue is resolved.’ But none of them said that.”
One of the memos referenced by Ramthun was authored by John Eastman, architect of a plan that argued Vice President Mike Pence could have rejected state electors on January 6, 2021, and declared Donald Trump president.
“We all know there was fraud in the voting,” Wally Rydzewski, a Ramthun supporter from Antigo told me. “And there’s proof of it. It’s just that nobody wants to listen.”
Ramthun just announced his candidacy for governor this past weekend, at an event attended by an estimated 500 supporters in Kewaskum, his birthplace. Joined onstage by fellow conspiracy theorist and pillow salesman Mike Lindell, Ramthun said one impetus for joining the race was what he described as mistreatment by other Republicans.
"Right person. Right role. Right time. It’s Tim time,” he said during the announcement of his candidacy, telling the crowd that Wisconsin could shift its electoral votes to Donald Trump if it tried hard enough.
According to a story published last week in Rolling Stone, Ramthun spoke with Trump in December 2021 and said the former president offered his endorsement if Ramthun joined the gubernatorial race.
“You’re my kind of guy,” Ramthun remembered Trump saying.
Ramthun was recently stripped of his only legislative staffer after he claimed Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos misused his authority to approve the use of ballot drop boxes leading up to the November 2020 election. Ramthun argues that only the state legislature can vote to approve such changes to election law. Vos also said Ramthun falsely accused him of coordinating with Hillary Clinton’s attorneys to make drop boxes available.
But Vos’ decision to punish Ramthun has earned the speaker a new cadre of enemies. Both Ramthun and former Marine Kevin Nicholson, who is also running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, are making the ouster of Vos a primary campaign issue. Trump himself once sharply criticized Vos for refusing to undertake the actions Ramthun is now demanding.
“Wisconsin Republican leaders Robin Vos, Chris Kapenga, and Devin LeMahieu, are working hard to cover up election corruption, in Wisconsin,'“ Trump said in a statement last June.
“Don’t fall for their lies! These REPUBLICAN ‘leaders’ need to step up and support the people who elected them by providing them a full forensic investigation. If they don’t, I have little doubt that they will be primaried and quickly run out of office.”
Nicholson, a former chair of the College Democrats of America, has said the “political machine,” including Vos, has failed the public. When he announced his candidacy, Vos urged him not to run, saying it would hurt the GOP’s chances of winning in 2020 against incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
“That’s like taking political advice from Scooby-Doo, except Scooby-Doo actually gets the guy in the end,” Nicholson said of Vos.
The idea that the 2020 election results were untrustworthy has taken hold among Republican activists, with 70 percent of GOP respondents in an August 2021 Marquette Law School poll saying they weren’t confident in the final results of the 2020 election in Wisconsin. Only 29 percent of independents and 4 percent of Democrats felt the same way.
Consequently, state conservative media figures, needing to feed the misinformation machine, have tried to convince listeners and readers that one can’t be an “actual Republican” unless he or she believes election conspiracies.
“This disconnect between the state Republican leadership and the elected Republican officials could not be greater,” said longtime Milwaukee-area conservative talk show host Mark Belling on the air last week. “Virtually every member of the State Assembly is aligning him or herself with Vos and virtually all actual Republicans are furious with the selling out that is coming from Vos.”
This criticism comes even as Vos spearheaded a slapstick election “review” run by former state Supreme Court Justice Mike Gableman, which is burning through $700,000 in taxpayer money in order to placate the “Stop the Steal” crowd. Among other missteps, Gableman’s shambolic investigation has seen him send threatening emails to local elections officials using the nom de plume “John Delta,” using a Gmail account to email documents about cyber security, and threatening local mayors with criminal prosecutions he has no power to conduct.
At the “Election Integrity” rally on Tuesday, a woman from Northern Wisconsin who identified herself only as “Victoria” told The Dispatch Trump won the election and drop boxes set up to collect early-voting ballots allowed Biden to steal the election.
“Why would you think that ballot boxes would be acceptable when that fact is, they were placed there for criminal activity?” she asked me. “You have to think like a criminal—us Republicans are so nice, we don’t think like criminals, right? We are polite, the Democrats are more ‘punch you in the face’—but you’ve gotta have that criminal mind.”
Prior to the event, Victoria and her friend, who identified herself only as LeeAnn, held hands and took part in a lengthy prayer asking God to help them overturn the election. “We need God to step in here,” she told me.
LeeAnn told me she hated Trump until the Lord told her to stop criticizing him. “Quit trying to make [Trump] into who you are,” she says she remembers God telling her.
Victoria then told me Madison is the home of an international child sex ring run by “Hillary Clinton and many people like her.” Such claims are the hallmark of the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe that the country is ruled by a cabal of Democratic pedophiles and that only Donald Trump could save the country.
Wisconsin, however, has already investigated the 2020 election, and found the result to be fair and accurate. In a report issued in October 2021, the Legislative Audit Bureau, which surveyed all 1,835 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks, found no irregularities, but made some recommendations of future clarifications and law changes the legislature could make to avoid confusion.
“Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure,” tweeted Republican state Sen. Robert Cowles after release of the report. “It’s my hope that we can now look at election law changes & agency accountability measures in a bipartisan manner based on these nonpartisan recommendations.”
After a 10-month review, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has sued to discontinue the use of ballot drop boxes, arrived at a similar conclusion, claiming it had found no evidence of voter fraud.
“In all likelihood, more eligible voters cast ballots for Joe Biden than Donald Trump,” the group said in a report summary.
Even some of the state’s most conspiratorially inclined elected Republicans acknowledge Biden won Wisconsin.
“If all the Republicans voted for Trump the way they voted for the Assembly candidates, he [Trump] would have won,” Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told progressive journalist Lauren Windsor in a hidden camera comment. “He didn’t get 51,000 votes that other Republicans got, and that’s why he lost.”
Johnson later doubled down on his assertion that Biden won Wisconsin, but added he thought there were still “irregularities” that “have yet to be fully explained, fully investigated, and solutions passed to restore confidence in future elections.”
Nonetheless, Ramthun has forged ahead with his claim that the Republican-led legislature can revoke its 10 electoral votes for Biden.
On January 25, Ramthun tried to drag a resolution to the floor that “acknowledges that illegality took place in conducting the general election and reclaims Wisconsin's 10 fraudulent electoral ballots cast for Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris.”
Rather than debate the resolution on the floor, the Assembly instead took a voice vote (typically signaling near-unanimity) to send it to a committee chaired by a Republican member of leadership that vowed to never bring it up for a vote.
“Rep Ramthun just attempted to pass an Assembly resolution to recall WI’s presidential electors,” tweeted Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who is retiring at the end of the session.
“Not only is it illegal, it’s just plain unconstitutional,” Steineke wrote. He noted that as chair of the committee where the resolution was sent, “there is ZERO chance I will advance this illegal resolution.”
But the vote to bury the bill in a committee was enough for conspiracy-minded websites like Gateway Pundit to declare victory.
“**HUGE BREAKING NEWS**,” the Gateway Pundit headline read. “Wisconsin Assembly Votes to Advance Rep. Ramthun’s Resolution to Reclaim Wisconsin’s Electors For President and Vice President That Were Certified Under Fraudulent Purposes.”
“It is not clear what the Wisconsin Senate will do with it yet,” the article read, immune to the fact the Senate cannot consider bills or resolutions until they pass the Assembly first.
Later, Ramthun appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, claiming his proposal was still alive.
“One honest, determined man or woman with resolve can make tremendous things happen,” Bannon told him.
While Ramthun may face an uphill battle for the nomination, his candidacy puts extra pressure on the campaign of former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who first took office as a traditional conservative back in 2010.
To date, Kleefisch has proposed forward-looking solutions, such as dismantling the state elections board and transferring its duties to the secretary of state, a nearly dormant office that has been held by a Democrat for decades. She also sued the state elections board in an effort to stop the use of ballot drop boxes.
But the Ramthun candidacy will force Kleefisch into a tight spot, as Ramthun supporters have already deemed her a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) for refusing to call for revocation of the state’s electoral votes. In the “Election Integrity” chat rooms on the Telegram app, participants have begun referring to her as “Becky Krawfish.”
So whether Ramthun wins the nomination or not, he will fundamentally transform the race when his competitors refuse to denounce his conspiracy theories. It remains to be seen whether capitulating to “actual Republicans” will leave the eventual candidate vulnerable against Democratic incumbent Tony Evers in November.