Democrats spend money in competitive Republican Senate primary

By: - February 16, 2023 5:25 am

Rep. Janel Bradntjen, Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) and Thiensville Village President Van Mobley are running in the Republican primary for Wisconsin's 8th Senate seat.. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner.)

Democrats are using a risky strategy — spending money in the Republican primary to boost an election denier’s candidacy — in the competitive race for Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District seat. 

Mailers paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and a TV ad paid for by the campaign of Democratic candidate Jodi Habush Sinykin focus heavily on Republican candidate Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who is known for her support of false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while choosing not to name either of the other Republican candidates. 

“Janel Brandtjen is the most conservative you can be when it comes to abortion,” a woman says in a TV ad paid for by Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin’s campaign.

Brandtjen faces Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) and Thiensville Village President Van Mobley next week in the race for the GOP nomination. The winner will face Habush Sinykin in the April general election. 

The race for this traditionally Republican seat, which represents the suburbs north of Milwaukee, will determine whether Republicans regain a supermajority in the state Senate. By holding 22 of 33 seats in the state Senate, Republicans could speed up legislation and remove elected officials without Democrats’ input. 

The same strategy of Democratic support for far-right candidates was used, somewhat successfully, across the country during the 2022 midterm elections in races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and for governor in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland and Illinois. The idea is that far-right, election denier candidates could win Republican voters in the primary, but would be easier to beat than moderate Republican candidates in general elections. 

Brandtjen and Knodl both supported false claims about the 2020 elections, however, Knodl is viewed as having broader appeal.

Knodl, like Brandtjen, signed a letter asking former Vice President Mike Pence to not certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Brandtjen, however, is seen as the more extreme of the two, having publicly promoted legally impossible attempts to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results and having used her former position as chair of the Assembly campaigns and elections committee to bolster false claims about the 2020 election. 

Habush Sinykin’s TV ad showcases several other women who describe Brandtjen as “too conservative,” then follow up with how Habush Sinykin would fight for reproductive rights. While the ad running in the leadup to the primary is ostensibly airing criticism of Brandtjen, conservative voters opposed to abortion could be attracted to vote for her by the ad.

“Our campaign is using Rep. Brandtjen to highlight the very dangerous views of all the Republicans running in this race,” Habush Sinykin’s campaign said in a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner. “We look forward to continuing to show that contrast to voters in the General Election, regardless of who wins the Republican primary.”

A mailer — paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin — highlights Brandtjen’s stances on abortion, showcasing that she was named “Pro-life Legislator of the year” by the group Pro-Life Wisconsin. Another mailer highlights former President Donald Trump’s support of Brandtjen with a quote from him: “‘The people of Wisconsin are lucky to have a strong and great leader like Representative Janel Brandtjen.’” Trump endorsed Brandtjen during her 2022 Assembly reelection campaign. 

Brandtjen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she isn’t paying “much attention to whatever strategy the Democrats may or may not be utilizing. I’ve been out knocking doors, talking to the people of the 8th district and hearing their concerns. That’s really all I care about at this time.”

Republican groups have been working to stop Brandtjen from winning the nomination, saying she is divisive and could lose the seat for Republicans. 

An anti-Trump Republican group called Americans for Country First is spending upwards of $55,000 on ads urging people to vote against Brandtjen in the upcoming primary. Citing previous statements by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the online ad calls Brandtjen “inept,” “unqualified” and says that she “spends her time tearing others down and dividing the state.”


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.