Assembly Speaker Robin Vos struggles to maintain control

‘Conspiracy theorists have taken over the party’ 

By: - January 31, 2022 7:00 am

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos | official website

The Assembly is only two weeks into the 2022 session and it’s already been a bruising one for Speaker Robin Vos.

It was clear at Vos’ news conference held before the floor session on Tuesday that he was on edge as he took sarcastic swipes at reporters.  In his remarks, he expanded beyond his usual targets — Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats in general — to encompass every reporter in the room.  He attacked the Journal Sentinel in particular and its reporter, Patrick Marley, who dared to ask him twice if he supports the use of drop boxes to return absentee ballots — a hot issue for Republicans and the subject of ongoing litigation. .

Speaker Robin Vos news conference 1/25/22 | WisEye

Taking a shot at Evers for something he has done himself for years, Vos replied to the drop box question by saying, “So, today, do I get to pull a Tony Evers and say, ‘We’re just going to talk about the bills on the calendar’ and you guys all just accept that’s the reality?” Vos demanded of the room full of TV cameras and reporters. “That’s how he does his press availabilities, so I’m going to focus today on talking about law enforcement.”

Vos then made a series of statements about  “rampant crime,” his desperate desire for a new governor and rising prices.

“When I’m home, those are what people are talking about,” said Vos. “Now I know folks in the media, because you live in Dane County and you have a tendency to focus on the topics that the Democrats want to talk about, they want to talk all about, you know, election accountability and all these kinds of things at the national level. … Certainly we know that we have to deal with an awful lot of those issues, which is why we have Justice [Michael] Gableman’s investigation.”

Marley again asked about drop boxes and Vos accused him of misinterpreting Vos’ past expressions of support for drop boxes, then added, “I understand why the Journal Sentinel, with its declining readership, wants to only focus on this election stuff — to try to get somebody actually wanting to focus on what’s in the newspaper as opposed to what people really care about.”

Vos continued the attacks on the press on Twitter: “Liberal media love their clickbait headlines. Today they said I dodged questions…” WKOW Capitol Bureau Chief A.J. Bayatpour tweeted in response: “It was a yes or no question, Mr. Speaker: Do you think drop boxes should be legal in Wisconsin? Should we take that as a yes since yesterday’s statement says you don’t support ‘expansion’?”

Vos’ claim on Tuesday that voters don’t care about election issues contradicts frequent statements he made previously justifying hiring Gableman to lead an election probe because voters tell him they don’t trust the results of the Nov. 2020 election.  Vos kicked off the Jan. 2021 session by saying he heard from people all the time who didn’t trust the election and used it to justify a raft of restrictive voting bills.

The voting restrictions  that have passed the Legislature have all been vetoed by Evers, who blasted GOP legislators saying, “In many ways, Wisconsin has been at the forefront of the national Republican efforts to override the will of the people. … Wisconsin has long been a laboratory of democracy. But in recent years, we are used as a petri dish for a Republican plan to undermine that democracy.”

“Tiger by the tail”

It doesn’t help Vos, the longest serving speaker in state history, that his name is easy to rhyme. He’s long been called Boss Vos by Democrats as well as some in his own party and pro-Trump insurgents’ slogan became Toss Vos, as “Stop the Steal” protesters gathered to object that Vos  didn’t do enough to stop Joe Biden from becoming president.

Currently it is all coming from his own side. Fellow Republicans.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos | official website

At the root of many of Vos’ current headaches is the election review he ordered, which numerous observers including newspaper editorial boards, nonpartisan watchdogs and legal experts have labeled a fiasco. Both the “investigation” itself and the Republican caucus’ response to it have spun out of Vos’ control.

In Wisconsin, taxpayers are picking up the bill for Vos’ $680,000 audit of an election that has been verified by three canvases, two recounts, voting machine audits, multiple court cases, prior elections committee investigations, the Wisconsin Elections Board and the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

Vos and Gableman’s shroud of secrecy around the review is beginning to fray. Vos lost in court and had to sit for a deposition. A mileage document from Gableman surfaced that consisted of  scratched numbers on a piece of paper with no receipt. Other records show Gableman spending profligately on food and travel. Many of the employees hired have been identified as election deniers or have ties to Trump; one had a criminal record for fraud.

And last Monday Vos was once again the target of an attack by Donald Trump, who put out a release reading, “ICYMI: “Wisconsin Speaker Vos Is Secretly Pushing Legislation to Increase Number of Drop Boxes After Judge Ruled Them Illegal in State.”

“Drop boxes are for Democrats, not for Republicans,” stated Trump. “They are a disgrace to our system of Elections and will always lead to massive Voter Fraud.” Trump linked to an article in the conspiracy-spreading Gateway Pundit, which began, “Republican Speaker Vos is not a friend to the people of Wisconsin or the people of America.”

Speaker Robin Vos flies with former President Donald Trump to talk election audit on 8/21/21 | Vos official Facebook
Speaker Robin Vos flies with former President Donald Trump to talk election audit on 8/21/21 | Vos official Facebook

In Dane County Circuit Court this week, Steve Fawcett, Vos staffer, attorney and his point-person for the Gableman review, gave testimony that he did not know if state laws were being followed or if contractual obligations were being met. He testified that he had never visited Gableman’s taxpayer-funded headquarters and didn’t even know where it was located.

“I have no idea” was Fawcett’s answer in response to a series of  questions springing from watchdog group American Oversight’s open-record request. When asked about weekly reports Gableman was supposed to file with him on the investigation, Fawcett said he had not seen any reports. Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn replied, “You understand that ultimately the buck stops with Mr. Vos and his office to produce relevant documents.”

Another factor contributing to Vos’ rough start to the 2022 session were two embarrassing incidents involving members of his caucus, which he has previously been able to keep in line.

Vos’ control began slipping, visibly, when Rep. Elijah Behnke (R-Oconto) was caught on a video posted to YouTube talking with a group of citizens in his Capitol office who were demanding a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election and accusing Vos of standing in the way. Behnke had a lot to say that made news the next day — including endorsing the idea that Republicans should cheat in elections — but he also mocked Vos and claimed the caucus would do things differently if Vos would just leave the room and let them vote.

Rep. Elijah Behnke | Courtesy of Elijah Behnke

“So just have Robin walk out and us as a caucus without him there vote on a full forensic audit,” suggested Behnke to his visitors. “I mean, a lot more people would have the courage to say something or at least raise their hand if he wasn’t in the room.”

Behnke further distanced himself from Vos, after one man told him, “You know that the table in the house is rigged but you’re willing to let the pit boss say, ‘Oh keep rolling the dice.’” Behnke responded, “I never voted for Robin and I don’t believe I will in the future.”

Behnke told them that Vos asserts control over his members because he will punish anyone who gets out of line. For example, said Behnke, he can give staff people raises if he likes the representative they work for, and pay cuts if he does not — or take away staff as he did to Rep. Tim Ramthun (R-Campbellsport).

Rep Timothy Ramthun | official legislative photo
Rep Timothy Ramthun | official legislative photo

Ramthun’s case was another headache for Vos last week. Vos punished Ramthun by taking away his only staff person for spreading misinformation.  He didn’t do it because Ranthum falsely claimed that Trump won Wisconsin and introduced a measure to snatch back the state’s electoral votes for Biden — which is what Ranthum did. Rather, he disciplined Ranthum for spreading lies about Vos working with former Sen. Hillary Clinton to promote drop boxes.

This was clear from a press release put out by 13 GOP leaders in support of Vos’ action explaining why the staffer was “reallocated. They stated — without any apparent irony —  that the cause was Ramthun spreading “misinformation” … about Vos.

“Speaker Vos has never worked with Hillary Clinton’s attorney to authorize drop boxes across the country. His involvement in NCSL did not involve anything having to do with drop boxes,” they wrote.

Rubbing salt into Vos’ wounds, the executive committee of the Iowa County Republican Party, released a statement Wednesday on a “crisis of leadership” among Republicans in the Assembly. They praised Ramthun and called Vos “impotent to accomplish anything of significance” for what they described as a betrayal, saying he reinforces the idea that “a group of self-seeking, self-serving, ambitious individuals holds the reins of power and cares nothing for the plight, concern or input of the people they claim to represent.”

Republicans for governor

Outside of his Assembly Republican Caucus, Vos has been having other, high-profile problems. Businessman and failed 2018 candidate for U.S. Senate Kevin Nicholson jumped in the race for governor after Vos ordered him not to. And he did so while taking more jabs at Vos than at the person he wants to run against in the general election, Gov. Evers. Vos has made it clear that he did not want anyone to run for the Republican nomination to challenge Evers for governor other than former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. At a WisPolitics event he said, “If Kevin Nicholson is listening — you need to not run for governor.”

Nicholson responded via Twitter, sarcastically thanking Vos for the political advice,” adding, “Our elections are a mess, law & order is eroding, schools are failing. How about you focus on doing your job?”

One week later — on Wednesday — Nicholson defied Vos and entered the race positioning himself as a political outsider, like Trump, separate from ruling Republicans. He said, “We can’t take Wisconsin to new heights if we elect a governor from the same, tired political class that lacks the vision, ability and will to fight for the future of our state.” And he kicked off his official announcement with a rant against Vos on talk radio, repeatedly referring to him as Scooby-Doo. One such comment was, “That’s like taking political advice from Scooby-Doo except Scooby-Doo actually gets the guy in the end.”

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Despite all Vos’ efforts to support Kleefisch and keep her from facing a challenger in the Republican primary, as soon as Nicholson slammed Vos as supporting drop boxes, Kleefisch shot back with a statement distancing herself from Vos and his past support and work on drop box legislation: “I agree with President Trump and urge Republicans to oppose any legislation that legalizes ballot drop boxes. Unattended drop boxes threaten the integrity of our elections which is why I sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission to ban their use.”

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch 2014 (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

It was also not a great week for Vos to be defending Kleefisch, who took a hit for her campaign’s numerous ties to imposter electors who filed papers certifying Wisconsin’s electoral votes for Trump.

Chris Walloch, executive director of A Better Wisconsin Together, celebrated the dissension among Republicans — including the powerful billionaire donor couple Liz and Dick Uihlein who have split  their efforts, with each giving money to a competing candidate in the governor’s race.

“Kevin Nicholson’s entrance into the gubernatorial race has definitely thrown a wrench in how many Republicans envisioned this year’s primary and general elections shaking out,” Walloch said in a statement, noting that  the Uihleins were a united front in endorsing Nicholson’s unsuccessful 2018 senate bid, but are now split in their gubernatorial support, with Liz having recently shelled out $220,000 in direct and super PAC funds to Kleefisch’s gubernatorial campaign efforts and Dick backing Nicholson.

“We can already see that the only differences between Rebeeca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson will be who can be more extreme in pandering to right-wing mega donors, undermining our freedom to vote, imposing their political views on what our kids learn in public schools and denouncing the increasingly unpopular Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos,” Walloch added.

The root of Vos’ bad week

In January 2021, Vos began casting doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election, sowing voter concern and then using it to justify a 2021 agenda focused on bills that would make it harder to vote. Democrats called it a power grab to help Republicans win elections by suppressing likely Democratic votes.

Vos launched  the  much-derided Gableman-led election investigation after being humiliated by former President Donald Trump who chastised him on the eve of the state Republican convention for not doing a “full-forensic audit.” Vos announced the next day that he would do his own audit and tapped Gableman to spearhead it, picking an election denier who has publicly admitted multiple times that he knows little about the elections process.

As the investigation has dragged on far beyond the Oct. 2021 deadline Vos originally promised, the speaker has fought to keep most of the details and records of it hidden from the public, while the taxpayers pick up the $680,000 bill. (Which Vos has said could go even higher.) This decision has put Vos on the losing side in court , where he was scolded by a judge for withholding records and forced into giving a deposition to the pro-democracy group American Oversight.

Apr 29, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; A box of Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are delivered to Cyber Ninjas Credit: Pool photo by Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

Even before those events, Vos replaced his former chair of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections committee with a fierce election denier, Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who told her constituents in a newsletter: “There is no doubt that after the filed affidavits and lawsuit, Donald Trump won this election in Wisconsin and several methods of fraud were used to change the outcome.”

Vos authorized a group of legislators, including Brandtjen, to travel to Arizona to witness its so-called Maricopa audit, and she returned demanding an “Arizona-style full forensic audit” and launched one in her committee, only to have Vos swat aside her request as unnecessary. Her actions garnered praise from Trump, who has panned Vos multiple times. So Vos caved, later hitching a ride on Trump’s plane to an Aug. 21 rally for a photo op with the former president.

Rep. Janel Brandtjen speaking on the Assembly floor into a microphone
Rep. Janel Brandtjen | Facebook

The ranking Democrat on the elections committee, Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) labeled Vos’ conflicting actions a desperate attempt to control his political base and his most far-right caucus members, saying, “I think Speaker Vos is smart enough to know that he can’t really investigate the election because there is nothing to investigate and they are not going to find anything. But he continues to be stuck where he’s got a tiger by the tail and he doesn’t know how to let go and not get bit.”

Then-Minority Leader Gordon Hintz  denounced Vos’ “sham investigation,” saying, “It is unsurprising that Speaker Vos is doubling down on a political witch hunt that is undermining the safety and security of our elections in Wisconsin. He is pandering to conspiracies and lies at the expense of democracy.”

Hintz describes Vos, who he has generally gotten along with, as a country club, Waukesha Chamber of Commerce Republican, most comfortable in a business suit. But, Hintz opines, Vos has caved to a group Hintz calls the “Q-Anon Caucus.”

That faction of Republicans has become more vocal as Vos has let the investigation — which he originally claimed was unnecessary — go on and on past his October 2021 deadline.

Meanwhile, Vos’ Gableman-led review is pulling his caucus apart, sowing dissension among Republican members and pulling public attention away from issues he wants talked about — like his law enforcement bills. Issues he believes will help Republicans win in November.

Wisconsin’s internecine GOP battle is attracting national attention. Last Thursday,  Vice News ran a story under the headline “Trump has Pushed the Wisconsin GOP Into a Full Meltdown,” which began: “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.”

Sen. Kathy Bernier

The Vice story quotes a state senator who served for years under Vos in the Assembly and who calls him a friend.

“The conspiracy theorists have taken over the party,” Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) told Vice. She also confirmed this week that Vos had been working with her on the issue of regulating drop boxes until Trump intervened.

“This infighting has Wisconsin Republicans angrier at each other than they are about the Green Bay Packers’ loss last weekend,” stated the article.

For years, Democrats have jokingly admired how good Vos is — using rewards, threats, skill and retribution — at keeping Republican representatives in line. His members come to the Assembly floor and generally vote in lock-step.

Now Vos’ grip on his caucus is unraveling, even as he attempts to hold it together by supporting an effort that has been labeled “buffoonery,” “grift,” and panned by editorial boards and good government groups. Gableman has been caught lying, not just about Trump having won the 2020 election,  but also about sharing an office space with the Thomas More Society, a rightwing law firm Gableman said was not involved in his review, until the head of the group tweeted about how glad he was to be involved.

Gableman has fired off subpoenas, demanded files and information that does not exist and threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay — all under the direction of Vos, who is accountable for all the time, money and damage the election review is causing.

Nonpartisan government watchdogs have harshly condemned the Gableman review for the harm it is doing.

Barry Burden, professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center
Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the UW-Madison (photo: UW-Madison)

Pointing out that he is neither a reporter, a partisan nor an advocate, Prof. Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the UW-Madison, described the aftermath of the 2020 election in Wisconsin as  ”exceptional and dangerous … compared to the normal experience after a presidential election, in this state, in most other states.”

People spreading misinformation are being rewarded, Burden said during a discussion of Wisconsin politics arranged by Project Democracy, Law Forward and States United. He finds it unconscionable that one of the imposter electors who signed a certificate stating Trump won in Wisconsin in 2020 is also a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission — Bob Spindell. He was horrified that Brandtjen’s election denial got her a chairmanship. And Gableman’s election denial led to his leadership of Vos’ investigation  without scrutiny and turned him into a GOP superstar.

“He continues to take part in partisan events around the state, which is completely contrary to how a legitimate audit review or investigation would take place,” Burden said of Gableman. “He has also said on two occasions he has no idea how Wisconsin elections are administered. So this is not a case of someone being an expert in this area and being brought in to do the investigation.”

“Experts like me who watch elections from the outside would really welcome a thoughtful, bipartisan review of what happened in 2020 to assess what worked well in very trying circumstances and what needs improvement,” Burden added, referencing the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing instead is a secretive, I would say bumbling and misguided, investigation that Gableman is leading…. It’s really impossible for that project to reach any kind of conclusion or report that has any sort of credibility.”

Vos, Ramthan and Behnke did not respond to questions for this story.

Vos has now set a wrap-up at the end of February for his review, which will be just before he plans to end the legislative session for 2022 in early March. The final impact of the review on Wisconsin remains to be seen, as well as its impact on Vos’ ability to hold together his caucus and his power.

Wrapping up Tuesday’s pre-session news conference, Vos stepped back before any other reporters could ask about elections, Gableman or drop boxes and his staff person hollered to reporters, “Is there any question on the session today?” Vos exited the room.

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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