Democrat’s write-in Assembly bid puts Vos in three-way match after narrow primary win

By: - September 6, 2022 4:58 pm
Jacobsen Vos Steen

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, center, will face not one but two write-in challengers in November: Adam Steen, right who lost to Vos in the Republican primary, and Joel Jacobsen, left, a Democrat who declared he will run for the seat because there is no official Democratic candidate. (Wisconsin Examiner photo illustration | Picture credits: Jacobsen campaign photo; Vos WisEye screen shot; Steen campaign photo)

With a write-in Republican challenger already running against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) in November, a two-time Democratic rival is joining the race as well.

Joel Jacobsen announced Tuesday he would run as a write-in candidate for the 63rd district state Assembly seat Vos holds. In a statement and in an interview, Jacobsen identified his top issues as reproductive rights and threats to democracy.

No Democrats submitted nomination papers for the seat this year, so no Democrat will be listed on the November ballot. Jacobsen said he had considered doing so this past spring but held back hoping that other candidates would step forward for the Democrats.

“I’ve run several campaigns,” said Jacobsen, who ran against Vos and lost in 2018 and 2020. “They are not easy and they can be very stressful on families.”

But in the last few weeks he decided to pursue the seat a third time amid signs of a much more “volatile” election. Between the loss of abortion rights in Wisconsin following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and concerns about changes to election administration driven by false claims of voter fraud, “people are really searching for choices,” Jacobsen said. “I don’t think they had them in the 63rd district.”

He said he changed his mind after Vos narrowly overcame a primary challenge from Adam Steen, and Steen subsequently decided to continue the contest through a November write-in campaign.

Jacobsen ran against Vos in 2018, losing 61% to 39% with a margin of more than 6,000 votes. He ran again in 2020, after another potential challenger dropped out, this time losing in a 58%-41% race with an almost 5,800-vote gap.

By contrast, Vos beat fellow Republican Steen by a margin of just 260 votes in the August primary, with fewer than 10,000 votes cast. Steen subsequently announced a write-in campaign for November, in hopes of beating Vos in the general election after falling short in the primary.

In choosing to run, “did I look at the fact that there was a write-in candidate who lost to Mr. Vos by 200 votes? Absolutely,” Jacobsen said.

Successful write-in elections are extremely rare beyond local elections. There do not appear to have been any write-in winners for the state Senate or Assembly in Wisconsin in the last several decades, if ever.

Under state law, because there is already one certified candidate on the ballot for the 63rd Assembly district (Vos), write-in candidates for the seat must formally register their campaigns with the Wisconsin Elections Commission by the Friday before Election Day .

“The people of the 63rd deserve to have a choice,” Jacobsen said in a statement announcing his write-in candidacy. “They deserve to be able to cast their vote for someone who will fight for a woman’s right to choose and a fair and equal democracy in Wisconsin.”

In an interview, he said that with former President Donald Trump’s continued efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, “a lot of people are very fearful.” But he traced challenges to democracy in Wisconsin to events years before Trump’s 2016 election.

“We do not have representative democracy any more,” Jacobsen said. “We have big areas that are controlled in a false manner due to gerrymandering.” As a consequence, “the normal see-saw [of party control in state government] we saw over the decades is changing very quickly.”

Steen’s decision to stay in the November race as a write-in candidate and Jacobsen’s entry as a write-in on the Democratic side are both likely to draw continued attention to the Assembly district contest through Election Day.

Jacobsen said he was familiar with the suggestion circulating in some quarters that Vos owes his narrow primary victory to Democrats in the district. That theory proposes that because there was no one from their own party on the ballot to challenge the Republican primary winner in November, some Democrats in the district might cast their votes in the open primary on the GOP ballot for Vos out of fear that Steen would win and saddle them with an extremist state lawmaker.

“I saw some speculation on that on Facebook,” Jacobsen said. “I don’t know personally of any voters that did that. Nor was I lobbied for that.”

He acknowledged the possibility that with his entry into  the race, GOP voters who wanted to support Steen would instead consolidate behind Vos rather than risk the seat being won by a Democrat in a close three-way contest.

“From my perspective, Mr. Steen is not the opponent,” Jacobsen said. “My focus is not on Mr. Steen, my focus is on Mr. Vos. He is the incumbent and well-entrenched for many years.”

While mounting a write-in effort, Jacobsen said he expected to raise some campaign funds and purchase advertising in his campaign “as much as money will allow,” looking to digital media channels and radio as well as some literature.

“It’s all about name recognition and turnout,” he said.

Steen challenged Vos from the right. He promoted discredited claims that Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election in Wisconsin and attacked Vos for not supporting the decertification of the state’s 10 electoral votes.

He did so even as Vos, in his role as Assembly speaker, launched an investigation of the election that ultimately produced no evidence of widespread, systematic voter fraud. Vos appointed former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to conduct the investigation.

Gableman later turned against Vos and endorsed Steen after urging the Assembly speaker to consider decertifying the 2020 election. After winning the primary, Vos fired Gableman and ended the investigation, which had run up a tab of more than $1 million.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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