WAUKESHA, Wis. — One year ago this month, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) sat on a private plane with Donald Trump and updated the former president on the investigation he had launched into the 2020 election, even though there was no evidence of widespread fraud.
The alliance between the two came to a clear end Friday night as Trump held a rally in the Milwaukee suburbs and urged his supporters to vote for Vos’s challenger, Adam Steen, in the Tuesday primary.
“Adam Steen is running to defeat your RINO speaker of the house, Robin Vos,” Trump said, using the acronym for “Republican in name only.” “Despite undeniable evidence of rigging and fraud, Speaker Vos has taken no steps to hold the Wisconsin Elections Commission accountable, clean up the voter rolls or right any of the other terrible wrongs.”
Despite the former president’s assertion about voting irregularities, a nonpartisan legislative audit and review by a conservative group found no evidence of significant electoral fraud in the state.
Trump formally endorsed Steen on Tuesday after weeks of threatening to do so as he urged Vos to take action, especially after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled July 8 that most absentee ballot drop boxes in the state are illegal. The ruling addresses future elections, not the one Trump lost in 2020, but the former president and some of his allies saw it as a fresh opportunity to challenge Biden’s win.
Soon after that decision, Vos told a Milwaukee television station that he had received a call from Trump urging him to overturn the results, something Vos said is “not allowed under the constitution.” Trump then falsely accused the speaker on social media of wasting “a brilliant and courageous decision by Wisconsin’s Highest Court” and letting Democrats “get away with ‘murder.’”
“This is not a time for him to hide, but a time to act!” Trump wrote. “I don’t know his opponent in the upcoming primary, but feel certain he will do well if Speaker Vos doesn’t move with gusto.”
A week later, after Vos had not moved on the issue, Trump endorsed Steen in a lengthy statement that groused about Vos using his photo with Trump in his primary campaign. Trump claimed Vos “refused to do anything to right the wrongs that were done” in the 2020 election. Steen has centered his primary campaign on decertifying the 2020 results, banning voting machines and ending most early and mail voting. Steen also has called for outlawing contraception.
Vos stood by his decision not to pursue decertification. “My opponent and those who endorse him continue to focus on the extreme and unconstitutional notion that we can overturn the 2020 election,” Vos said in a statement late Friday night. “While they campaign on the impossible, I will remain focused on the conservative principles of fighting for lower taxes, enacting real election reforms, holding criminals accountable and giving parents more control over their kid’s education.”
Hours before Trump took the stage to promote Tim Michels, his pick in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Steen addressed the crowd and asked attendees to help knock on doors this weekend so he can defeat Vos. Until Trump bestowed his endorsement, Steen had drawn little attention. In 2018, he received about 10 percent of the vote in a six-way Republican primary to replace House Speaker Paul D. Ryan when Ryan decided not to seek another term.
“There’s only one road to achieving free and fair elections in Wisconsin, and that road runs through the 63rd Assembly district,” Steen said to a crowd that was still growing and far from fired up by his remarks. “There’s a huge roadblock in the 63rd, and it must be removed from power. Does anybody know who that is? Some call him a RINO, others a treasonous traitor. I’m partial to the latter. No matter what you call him, it’s time to do one thing on August 9. It’s time to toss Vos.”
The warm-up acts during the rally provided the crowd with a who’s who of Wisconsin’s leading conspiracy theory spreaders and election deniers. There was state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R), the chairwoman of a State Assembly committee that has hosted public hearings featuring election conspiracy theorists.
Brandtjen has endorsed Steen, even though it was Vos who named her as chairwoman. She risks losing that position if Vos wins his primary. “God bless Wisconsin, Donald Trump and, more important, patriots that fight!” Brandtjen told the crowd.
The rally’s invocation came from former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, whom Vos last summer hired to oversee the election review, a hiring announced a day after Trump criticized Vos and other legislative leaders as not doing enough to look into the 2020 results.
“We thank you for the courage and the wisdom of our 45th president, Donald J. Trump, who more than any other president in the history of our nation is responsible for returning our nation to the path of protecting the national culture of life and rejecting the miserable, cowardly and callous culture of death,” Gableman said in prayer.
Gableman and Vos have clashed at times. Gableman in March told Wisconsin legislators they should look into decertifying the election, but two weeks later, he sent Vos a private memo abandoning the idea as a “practical impossibility.”
In April, Gableman appeared at a rally on the state Capitol steps, along with Steen, who called Vos a traitor. The next month, Vos cut Gableman’s pay in half and paused his review of the election while court battles over the investigation play out.
Trump has twice said Gableman is endorsing Steen, even though Gableman has not made such an announcement. After the speech, Gableman declined to say whether that was true, and Steen said Gableman gave him that news on Thursday.
Steen said the endorsement could be risky for Gableman because Vos is the one who hired him and could cut off his pay. “I have said multiple times I am willing to give up everything I have for this election, and it is so important because Justice Gableman’s in the same spot,” he said.
Trump’s visit to Wisconsin came days after conservative activist Harry Wait announced that he had used a state website to have an absentee ballot for Vos sent to his own home. Wait has said he knew ordering the ballot was a crime but wanted to expose what he considers a vulnerability in the online form to request ballots.
Wait said Trump’s team had asked him to attend the rally but revoked the invitation when he said he wanted to bring state Rep. Tim Ramthun (R) as a guest. Ramthun, another gubernatorial candidate, has been the most vocal official in the state calling for decertification. Also running is former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch (R). The winner of the Tuesday primary will face Gov. Tony Evers (D) in November.
Many in the crowd were there to see Trump, not the candidates he endorsed. There was a strong out-of-state contingent and even some Wisconsinites said they did not know who Vos was, even though he has been in office for 18 years and has been speaker for a decade.
Scott Godden, who works in health care, said he supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 and came to the rally as a way to help him make up his mind on whom to support in the race for governor. Godden lives in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, about 50 miles from Vos’s district. He was not familiar with Vos or Steen but said he assumed Trump’s endorsement of Steen would help him. He did not think it was unusual that Trump was inserting himself into a primary race for the state legislature.
“This is Donald Trump. Nothing surprises me. I mean, he could pick the most obscure city clerk in Ashwaubenon to support, and that’s Donald Trump,” he said, referring to a suburb of Green Bay. “It’s theater, and we love good theater. All Americans, I think, do.”