The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After attacks and primary challenge, Wisconsin GOP leader still stands by Trump

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fears that Republicans may have a ‘dying vision’ because of party orthodoxy

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) narrowly won his Republican primary after former president Donald Trump endorsed his opponent. (Andy Manis/AP)
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MADISON, Wis. — Over the past 15 months, the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly has sought to placate Donald Trump as the former president bombarded him with phone calls about the 2020 election, accused him of covering up corruption, labeled him a Republican in name only and endorsed his little-known primary opponent.

After winning his primary by just 260 votes this month, Robin Vos expressed no regrets and stood by Trump.

“I think Donald Trump has done a lot of good things for our country, and if he runs again, he could do a lot more,” Vos said in an interview in his state Capitol office. “But I’m not going to say that just because Donald Trump believes something, that I’m going to change what I believe — unless I’m persuaded.”

After the 2020 election, Republican leaders fell mostly into two camps: one embracing Trump’s lies about his loss and one resisting his demands to reverse the results. Vos tried to forge a middle ground, launching an expansive and expensive review of the election but refusing to take the legally impossible step of decertifying the election. His efforts weren’t enough to escape Trump’s revenge.

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Unlike many of the others who defied the former president, Vos has survived so far. After hanging on by the slimmest of margins, Vos may again be thrust into battles over election results in a battleground state where elections for president and governor are often decided by a percentage point or less.

“One of the things we’re seeing is that Trump is demanding a specific kind of loyalty. It’s not just that you are loyal to Trump, but you are loyal to Trump’s most extreme versions of the lie,” said Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic who for years was an influential conservative radio host in Milwaukee.

“This is a significant misstep,” Sykes said of how Vos has handled himself. “But it feels like the kind of misstep that establishment Republicans have been making over the last six years, which is, ‘Okay, people aren’t really going to buy the crazy. I can manage the crazy.’ Only to find out that the crazy is unmanageable.”

Some Republican officials have fared better than Vos, while others have fared worse. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger put up stiffer resistance to Trump than Vos did and won their primaries comfortably. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who refused Trump’s entreaties to overturn the results in his state and testified before Congress about the pressure he faced, this month lost his primary for a seat in the state Senate by a 2-to-1 margin.

Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, four chose not to seek reelection, four lost their primaries, and two advanced to their general elections. Vos pushed back against comparisons between him and House members such as Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who lost their recent primaries.

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“I have never undercut or said that Donald Trump did something in the White House or in public policy that in general I didn’t agree with,” Vos said. “I don’t like to be compared to those two because I think they did other things, which were different. All that I’ve done is to say that we can’t do something that’s unconstitutional.”

Vos declined to say whether he believes Trump should announce another run for office before the midterm elections or whether Trump could be a drag on Republicans this fall. But he did express concern about the future of his party if it remains under the sway of one person.

“The Republican Party of today has somehow got this idea that if you don’t agree all the time on every topic [with] exactly what somebody else thinks should be the ideology of the party, you’re not worthy of support,” Vos said. “And I think that’s a dying vision for a political party.”

Unlike in Arizona, Georgia and Florida, the Republican-dominated legislature in Wisconsin has had its attempts to overhaul voting rules blocked by a Democratic governor. That could change if Gov. Tony Evers (D) loses to Tim Michels, the Trump-endorsed construction executive running against him.

If Republicans take control of the state, they would be sure to face demands to restructure how elections are run from Trump as he considers another run for president. It’s unclear how well Michels could work with Vos, who endorsed one of Michels’s primary opponents, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch. Michels in May suggested Vos had not earned a “passing grade” and might not be “reformable” as a legislative leader.

Michels has said he would dissolve the state’s bipartisan elections commission and replace it with a new agency but hasn’t spelled out the details of his plan. He would need to work with Vos to get such a plan approved by the legislature. Michels hasn’t ruled out trying to decertify the 2020 election and hasn’t answered whether he would certify the results after the 2024 presidential race.

Trump’s pick for Wisconsin governor won’t weigh in on 2020 results

The pressure on Vos persists. Adam Steen, the Republican who received 49 percent of the vote in his primary run against Vos, announced Thursday he was mounting a write-in campaign in November. It’s a long-shot bid, but one that could again attract the attention of Trump.

State Rep. Evan Goyke (D) said it was stunning to see Trump and his allies paint the longest-serving Assembly speaker in state history as anything other than a conservative after Vos had cut taxes, curbed the power of unions, limited early voting and put in place legislative maps that locked in large Republican majorities.

“There’s the Donald Trump party and then there’s the Republican Party. They’re drifting further and further apart,” Goyke said. “I think the takeaway might be that there is a purity test now in the Trump party that Vos couldn’t pass, or he passed by 260 votes.”

Vos’s brush with a primary defeat will weaken him with his caucus, Goyke argued. Jim Steineke, who for eight years worked closely with Vos as the Assembly majority leader, disagreed with that sentiment, saying Vos enjoys broad backing in his caucus even though Trump and his supporters have turned against him.

“It all boils down to the vast majority of the caucus, I think, supports him because they work alongside him and they know how effective he is,” Steineke said. “I mean, all you have to do is look at who in the legislature is the Democrats’ number one target and has been for years, and it’s always Robin Vos.”

Vos’s dispute with Trump began more than a year ago, when Trump accused Vos and other Republican leaders of “working hard to cover up election corruption.” The next day, at the state Republican Party’s annual convention, Vos announced the election review he had recently approved would be overseen by Michael Gableman. A former state Supreme Court justice, Gableman months earlier had claimed without evidence that the 2020 election had been stolen and blamed Republican leaders such as Vos for how it had been run.

Within weeks, Trump again goaded Vos when he declined to approve seizing ballots and voting machines from two counties. Vos soon afterward met with Trump to make his case that his plan for reviewing the election was sound. The next day, Vos trumpeted their meeting and released a photo of the two of them sitting side by side on Trump’s plane.

Vos took a largely hands-off approach as Gableman participated in Republican Party events, consulted with purveyors of misinformation and attended a symposium hosted by MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, who has repeatedly made baseless, far-fetched claims about the election. Vos never embraced such theories but gave Gableman free rein to explore them.

At one stage, Gableman told Vos he didn’t support trying to decertify the 2020 election, according to Vos. In March, Gableman blindsided him by publishing a report that argued lawmakers should consider decertification, even though constitutional scholars had called the idea absurd. Two weeks later, Gableman wrote Vos a memo calling decertification a “practical impossibility.”

The day he got that memo, Vos met with John Eastman, an attorney who has led efforts to try to decertify the 2020 election and who advised Trump as he sought ways to stay in power after he lost. After the meeting, Vos reaffirmed his belief that the election could not be decertified but said he believed there had been “widespread fraud” in the 2020 election, even though independent reviews have found no such evidence.

Vos said Gableman’s discussion of decertification caused him to lose confidence in Gableman, but he didn’t fire him at that point. Instead, in May he suspended the election review and cut Gableman’s pay from $11,000 to $5,500 a month.

Once Trump endorsed Vos’s opponent, Gableman followed suit and recorded a robocall claiming that “Robin Vos never wanted a real investigation into the 2020 election in Wisconsin.” The night Vos won his primary, he dubbed Gableman an “embarrassment to the state.” Three days later, he fired him.

Gableman’s review, and the onslaught of litigation it spawned, has cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $1 million so far. Lawsuits brought under the state’s public records law revealed Gableman conducted his initial research from a library computer in suburban Milwaukee but ultimately performed little work. A judge this month determined Gableman’s office in one three-month stretch “accomplished nothing.”

“It kept none of the weekly progress reports the Wisconsin State Assembly required it to keep,” Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington wrote. “It recorded no interviews with witnesses. It gathered no measurable data. It organized no existing data into any analytical format. It generated no reports based on any special expertise.”

Despite all of this, Vos said he had no regrets about hiring Gableman. Vos said Gableman helped raise questions about how voting was conducted in nursing homes and $10 million in donations to election jurisdictions from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Gableman largely relied on the work of others to highlight those issues.

The election review left Vos with few allies. Democrats argued he was undermining democracy by letting Gableman chase baseless claims, while Trump’s allies disparaged Vos for not trying to reverse the results.

“He is ostracizing people in both parties and people in the middle and not even getting anything from it,” said Melissa Baldauff, a Democratic strategist and former spokeswoman for Evers. “He is just squandering the power he does have and for reasons that I don’t even know. I think that he is very concerned with maintaining his personal position and is doing what he thinks is going to preserve his hold on leadership.”

Vos said he spoke with Trump “fairly often” throughout the review — most recently in mid-July, just before Trump endorsed Steen and dubbed Vos a “RINO,” or Republican in name only.

Vos has no Democratic opponent this fall but finds himself facing a familiar adversary on the right. Announcing his write-in campaign Thursday from a parking lot, Steen excoriated Vos as a few dozen supporters chanted, “Full Steen ahead!”

“I will no longer be lectured by Drop Box Vos on election integrity,” Steen said, alluding to Vos’s past support for absentee ballot drop boxes.

In an interview, Steen acknowledged the difficulties of running as a write-in candidate but said he believed he could win because he now has 2½ months to tell voters in the heavily Republican district about his endorsement from Trump. The endorsement came just a week before the primary, after many had already cast absentee ballots.

Steen told his backers at his campaign announcement that they needed to keep fighting.

“This is not the end,” he said. “It’s just the beginning, isn’t it?”