Accusations of slander. Leaked documents. Fake news pushed by a right-wing conspiracy website. Staff forcibly reassigned. Angry warnings from former President Donald Trump.
Wisconsin Republicans have broken into open warfare over how far to push Trump’s election lies, pitting conspiracy theorists who think the 2020 election was outright stolen against Republicans who merely want to make it harder to vote.
It shows that no matter how far establishment Republicans go in trying to please Trump and his most hard-line supporters, they still risk his wrath if they don’t fall in line on his demands. And it’s a clear sign of what kinds of laws Wisconsin might get if Republicans win unified control of the state in this fall’s midterms.
This infighting has Wisconsin Republicans angrier at each other than they are about the Green Bay Packers’ loss last weekend.
“The conspiracy theorists have taken over the party,” said Wisconsin state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a Republican, whose election bill Trump attacked this week.
Tensions have been simmering for months. But they boiled over in recent days with nasty accusations and bitter recriminations. Trump-aligned Wisconsin GOP state Rep. Timothy Ramthun falsely accused Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of being in league with Hillary Clinton. Vos responded by stripping Ramthun of his lone staffer.
Then someone leaked a draft version of Republicans’ election reform bill to the conspiracy theory–promoting website Gateway Pundit, which claimed that Vos was “secretly pushing legislation” to expand the use of ballot drop boxes in the state—even though it wasn’t actually Vos’ bill.
That got Trump’s attention.
“Some RINO Republicans in Wisconsin are working hand in hand with others to have drop boxes again placed in Wisconsin. These fools are playing right into the Democrats’ hands. Drop boxes are only good for Democrats and cheating, not good for Republicans,” Trump complained in a Monday morning statement.
Wisconsin GOP leaders have been trying to walk a fine line for months, inflaming their base’s fury at what they think was a rigged 2020 election to push for election law changes that would make it easier for them to win in future elections. They’ve passed bills to eliminate most ballot drop boxes, make it harder to request mail ballots, and tighten voting ID rules in a way that could make it harder for disabled people to vote.
But Trump’s angry statement left them scrambling for a Plan B—and made it more likely that if the GOP wins back power in the 2022 midterms, they’ll pass even more-extreme voting laws in arguably the country’s most important swing state.
“All of this is just finally coming to a head,” said Matt Batzel, a Trump-aligned Wisconsin Republican operative and head of the conservative activist group American Majority. “There’s a disconnect between elected officials and the base.”
Bernier’s draft bill would have created new security regulations and limitations but allowed drop boxes for absentee ballots. Ballot boxes were once an uncontroversial and bipartisan measure—Vos supported it in 2020, for instance. But it’s become a lightning rod on the right. And after Trump attacked the bill, Vos and other top GOP officials, including former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the party’s front-runner for governor, quickly disavowed it.
“For one of our colleagues to share that with a Gateway Pundit is despicable. That is wrong. It is where you cannot trust the people in your own party,” Bernier told VICE News.
State law isn’t clear on the issue, but some counties have used ballot boxes for years, and the Wisconsin Election Commission has said they’re allowed. Counties greatly expanded their use in 2020 amidst the pandemic. Conservatives have sued to try to ban them, and a local judge ruled two weeks ago that they’re right, moving to make it harder for voters to return their absentee ballots. The ultimate decision on whether that ruling stands will land in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a narrow majority.
Ranthum pulled another stunt on Tuesday night, attempting to pass a bill to decertify the 2020 election and hand Wisconsin’s electors to Trump instead of Biden. That’s not possible—but it didn’t stop the Gateway Pundit from claiming the assembly had voted to decertify the election.
Wisconsin Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke’s response:
All this infighting comes even though Wisconsin Republicans have been bending over backwards to appease their base, while using the fury Trump has fueled to try to tighten voting laws heading into the midterms.
The state has conducted two audits—one nonpartisan, one conducted by the conservative group that’s suing against drop boxes—that found no evidence of widespread voting fraud in 2020.
But Vos authorized an additional taxpayer-funded partisan investigation into the election and put a conservative former state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to lead it. Gableman has rampaged around the state threatening to jail local clerks and elected officials who refuse to sit for closed-door depositions with his investigation, while refusing to transparently share the findings with the public.
This isn’t enough for the most hard-line Trump supporters, however. And Republicans are worried the infighting could continue through next August’s primaries, potentially hurting their chances in what’s shaping up to be a great year for the GOP.
“It harms both sides. You haven’t done enough to make the ‘election was stolen’ people happy or give them what they want, but you’re also doing too much for anyone with any sanity,” one Wisconsin GOP strategist told VICE News.
“They’re at each other’s throats because they can’t agree on the best way to suppress or steal an election,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler told VICE News.
And while this specific tension may recede soon, intraparty tensions over how far to go to change voting laws are unlikely to abate heading into the midterms, with a competitive primary for governor and other contests that are already turning into races to the right.
“The establishment will have a hard time winning any election in ’22 if they don’t handle this issue properly. If they tiptoe around it or do five percent of it to try to pacify the base, they’re going to be in big trouble,” said Batzel. “The base wants action.”
Follow Cameron Joseph on Twitter at @cam_joseph.