Could Robin Vos be vulnerable in the upcoming election?

Democratic allies are betting hundreds of thousands that he is

Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020
Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020

Independent spending in the Racine-area race against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) skyrocketed over the past week 

A week ago on Monday about  $19,300 had been reported in express spending by outside advocacy groups in the 63rd Assembly District where Vos is being challenged by Democrat Joel Jacobsen in a rematch, according to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) report.

A week later that amount surged to $300,000, or almost 15 times greater, in outside expenditures, according to WDC records, most of it against Vos. (Around $45,000 was spent in support of Jacobsen.) 

The largest expenditure was $175,300 by A Better Wisconsin Together, which spent $175,000 against Vos and roughly $300 promoting Jacobsen. Two years ago Vos easily beat Jacobsen, getting 61% of the vote. Jacobsen spent less than $5,000 in that race. 

“We see a very clear path, and a very prime opportunity to make Robin Vos explain why he made the decisions that have led to the crisis that we’re facing right now which is 1,700 or more now dead from COVID-19,” says Ryan Billingham, communications director for the Wisconsin Conservation Voters (WCV). “When people are paying very close attention in his district to what’s happening on the national stage and seeing the kind of dishonesty and polarization the Trump administration is perpetrating on our country, I think people are a little bit more open to learning more about his record. And all you have to do with Robin Vos is to point to his record. People are taking the time to do that now.” 

The League has spent $72,257 against Vos and $28,429 for Jacobsen. The five other groups spending in this race are Citizen Action of Wisconsin, For Our Future, the NEA Advocacy Fund, Planned Parenthood and Voces de la Frontera Action. The WCV spent its $105,000 on digital advertising, which is where much of the outside money is going this cycle in legislative races. 

Billingham says increased public scrutiny of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic has made voters more likely to pay attention to what political leaders are doing — or not doing — about COVID-19 on the state level. That, he says, makes Vos vulnerable.

“When it comes to COVID-19 and this unprecedented global pandemic,” he says, “it is impossible to imagine that he has our best interests in heart when it comes to our health, our environment and clean water and clean air.”

From the website of Wisconsin Conservation Voters

Billingham says his group’s members are concerned about Vos’ rollback of environmental protections, PFAS contamination, well-water poisoning — as well as broader issues of clean elections, democracy, racial injustice and health.

He guesses many of the groups spending money against Vos must have seen some of the same polling data that indicated potential vulnerability this cycle against top Republican leadership. “We took action and then we found out through the filings and reporting that other organizations are doing the same thing.”

More than keeping Vos busy

It’s not uncommon for the opposing political party to spend some small amount of money or field a long-shot opponent to keep a  leader busy in his or her own district so the leader doesn’t have as much time to campaign across the state in the few swing-districts that are left. 

But $300,000 is a huge amount of money that some campaign veterans say would have typically been divided up among the top competitive districts — unless 2020 proves to be such a “wave” election that Vos could truly be vulnerable. In 2010, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan lost his own race in his Janesville district in a GOP wave year. 

And politics in Vos’ area of the state are tied to another issue that is not as prominent elsewhere — the floundering Foxconn deal.

The Wisconsin Democracy campaign — in its release — pointed out that the massive increase in spending in the Racine-area district came after widespread reporting, including a lengthy report in The Verge, expanded on by the Wisconsin Examiner, that the much-heralded Foxconn factory has laid off employees and failed to keep its promises of creating a technology hub that would employ 13,000 workers in the southeastern part of the state in exchange for more than $3 billion in state subsidies.

The Foxconn deal was approved by Republicans led by Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker.

“As of today an empty building 1/20th the size of the promised factory sits on the Foxconn site, and the company recently received a permit to use the building as storage instead of a factory,” the WDC release states.

Republican leaders pushed through highly gerrymandered redistricting maps in 2010 that have meant that Vos has rarely had to campaign in his district. His district, like the majority of Wisconsin legislative districts, is considered a very reliably Republican seat. But 2020 is seen as a year when anything can happen.

Months of polling by Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin have shown a steady 4 – 6 point lead by former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump since May. A poll released Monday by the UW-Madison Elections Research Center poll shows Biden nine points ahead of Trump in Wisconsin and the Marquette Poll will release its final pre-election poll Wednesday.

Calls to the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee were not returned by publication time. According to his September 2020 report, Vos had spent $51,976 and had a cash balance of $339,636. 

Some constituents are reporting on social media that they have met Vos at their doors — something they have never experienced before. But Vos responded on his Facebook page to his opponent with a lengthy posting saying: “Joel Jacobsen and his liberal supporters like Tony Evers have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into this race in an attempt to tarnish my name. This is exactly what is wrong with politics today.”