A Wisconsin rightwinger’s fall from conservative grace: ‘The Maga crowd despises him’ | Wisconsinthedigitalchaps


In early December, a rightwing Wisconsin organization called HOT Government sent out a breathless email: Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman turned election conspiracy theorist and staunch Donald Trump ally, had nominated an important Wisconsin politician for a dubious award.

The prize would go to the person who exemplifies “leadership in BEING AN OBSTACLE TO STOPPING ELECTION CRIME”, the email declared.

Lindell’s target wasn’t a Democrat, nonpartisan election official or even a moderate Republican – it was Robin Vos, the powerful Wisconsin Republican assembly speaker.

The nomination reflects a stark turn of fortunes for Vos, who has spent more than a decade using every tool at his disposal to cement Republican power in Wisconsin, touting a deeply conservative record including on voting.

Vos helped re-draw the state’s legislative maps in 2011, ensuring Republican control of the legislature ever since. The same year, he followed former Republican governor Scott Walker’s lead in creating the most restrictive voter identification law in the country and passing legislation to kneecap union power in a state where organized labor was once the core of the Democratic coalition.

Vos was elected speaker of the assembly in 2013 and has used his years in office since to shore up his party’s minoritarian lock on power in the swing state. When Republicans lost the governorship in 2018, the assembly quickly passed legislation that curbed the power of the incoming Democratic governor. And after Trump lost the state in 2020, Vos initiated an investigation into Wisconsin’s election, hiring a promoter of the “Stop the Steal” movement to lead it.

State of swing states description

He was in all respects a loyal rightwinger. But Vos has drawn a line at embracing Trump’s false claim that he actually won Wisconsin in 2020 and refused to join colleagues who suggested overturning the 2020 election. His unwillingness to cross that line has turned him into a pariah on the far right, a target of Lindell, an enemy of Trump and a symbol of the current state of the Republican party where loyalty to Trump is the key litmus test.

Now, Vos is fighting elements of his party that rejected the results of the 2020 election and have come to view him not as a hardline conservative who has done more than almost anyone else to strengthen Republicans’ power in the state, but as a corrupt establishment hack complicit in Trump’s undoing.

With the Trump flank of the grassroots Wisconsin Republican party as strong as ever ahead of the 2024 election, Vos is scrambling to appease his hardline party detractors so he doesn’t become a casualty of the movement he helped create.

“There’s a segment of the Maga crowd who despises him, because they adamantly believe President Trump was cheated,” said a veteran Wisconsin GOP operative, who spoke anonymously given his role within pro-Trump circles. “Where he is right now is kind of emblematic of the fight going on within the Republican party – here in Wisconsin and across the nation.”

Robin Vos, the Wisconsin assembly speaker addresses members during a contentious legislative session on 4 December 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Robin Vos, the Wisconsin assembly speaker addresses members during a contentious legislative session on 4 December 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph: Andy Manis/Getty Images

From the young Republican …

Since he was a child, Vos led a political life. In sixth grade, he tagged along with a teacher to political events, then joined the Young Republicans and worked for former Republican governor Tommy Thompson before starting college. During his first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Vos ran for and won a seat on the student senate and then went about lobbying every member of the Wisconsin state legislature for reduced tuition hikes.

His eagerness was rewarded two years later, when Governor Thompson appointed Vos to be a student member of the University of Wisconsin system’s governing body. Vos surrounded himself with other young Republicans: his roommate and friend at UW-Whitewater, Reince Priebus, would go on to chair the Republican National Committee for six years before working as Donald Trump’s chief of staff in 2017.

After graduating in 1991, Vos snagged a job as a legislative aide to Bonnie Ladwig, a leader in the Wisconsin state assembly, then returned home to Burlington, in south-east Wisconsin, and won a seat on the Racine county board. When Ladwig retired a decade later in 2004, Vos won her seat.

“Jim and Bonnie Ladwig were super close to me,” Vos told the Guardian, sitting at the end of a long and formidable wooden table in his Capitol office. Vos had been taking back-to-back interviews all day but he was focused and energized. “They were like a second set of parents – and then Tommy Thompson, I talk to him almost every week – Governor Evers, annually.”

Vos advanced quickly in the assembly, learning how to manage the personalities in the Republican caucus and when to make bipartisan alliances. Perhaps emulating his slogan as a college politician – “We want your views” – Vos earned the reputation of listening carefully to his colleagues and learning their vulnerabilities and strengths.

“I really want to be a consensus builder,” said Vos, who said he believed eking out a policy win, even a small one, was worthwhile – and faulted the contemporary Republican party for adopting what he viewed as an all-or-nothing politics.

Mark Pocan, a progressive Democratic congressman in the state, who sat on the joint committee on finance with Vos, formed an unlikely friendship with the legislator. “I always found him someone that I can have [a] conversation with,” said Pocan. “He’s very effective in knowing how to work his members to get things done.”

Tony Evers, the governor of Wisconsin, addresses a joist session of the state’s legislature on 15 February 2022. Behind him, on the left, s Robin Vos.
Tony Evers, the governor of Wisconsin, addresses a joist session of the state’s legislature on 15 February 2022. Behind him, on the left, s Robin Vos. Photograph: Andy Manis/AP

“Everybody seems to think that Robin tells everybody in the caucus, ‘You will vote this way, you will do this, you will do that,’ and it’s not that way at all,” said Kathy Bernier, a Republican who served in the assembly for five years under Vos’s leadership. “He will be always cognizant of the vulnerable members of his caucus.”

But Vos has also gained a reputation for cracking down on uncooperative members of his caucus and withholding committee seats from disloyal members. In 2016, he withheld committee appointments from three conservative lawmakers who had previously clashed with him. Most recently, his caucus removed Janel Brandtjen, an election denier and Republican staterepresentative, from her leading role on the elections committee after she endorsed his primary opponent.

None of the seven leaders of the Republican caucus in the assembly agreed to an interview.

… To ‘the prince of darkness’

Under Vos’s leadership, the Republican-controlled legislature has flexed outsized power in Wisconsin. While statewide races are often determined by vanishingly narrow margins, Republicans can comfortably count on strong majorities in the legislature – a product of the 2011 redistricting law Vos helped craft. He currently presides over a 64-35 seat majority in the assembly, which he has leveraged to strengthen Republican power in the state.

But Vos is quick to contest the view, held by many Democrats, that his legislative style is anti-democratic – or really anything but good, effective politics. “Democrats can’t accept that because they think the only reason they’re losing is the maps – maybe it’s your strategy. Maybe it’s your campaign, maybe it’s the issues you run on.”

Also in 2011, Vos helped push through one of the most restrictive voter identification laws in the nation; independent studies have found it disproportionately impacts low-income and Black voters, but the law has nonetheless survived numerous court challenges by voting rights advocates. When Wisconsin’s government accountability board found in 2015 that the legislature had failed to provide sufficient education around the new voter ID rules, a requirement of their own law, the assembly voted to dissolve the board.

After Democrats won races for governor and attorney general in the 2018 election, Vos rushed through laws limiting the powers of both offices in the weeks before they took office. The “lame duck” legislation, among other provisions, limited the governor’s authority to appoint leaders to certain state agencies and gave the legislature the right to hire outside lawyers to intervene in lawsuits. The power grab outraged Democrats and good-government groups and illustrated the lengths to which Republicans in office would go to wrest power from their opponents. A 2022 Politico article referred to Vos as the state’s “shadow governor”.

Vos, wearing a mask, gloves and protective gown, working at the polls in Burlington, Wisconsin, in April 2020.
Vos, wearing a mask, gloves and protective gown, working at the polls in Burlington, Wisconsin, in April 2020. Photograph: AP

In 2015, Vos even tried to bring about a law that would shield state lawmakers entirely from public records requests. The effort failed, but he and other members of his caucus are known to habitually delete their work emails – a practice that, while legal, makes it harder for journalists and the public to access documents.

“When it comes to sunshine in government, Robin Vos is the prince of darkness,” said Bill Lueders, a political journalist and the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

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He has developed a reputation for obstinance towards working with Democrats in office. In early 2020, while Republican- and Democratic- led states across the country delayed primary elections amid the rapidly-spreading coronavirus, the state legislature shut down attempts by Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, to move the date of the Wisconsin primary. In a viral image, Vos, donned in head-to-toe protective gear and volunteering as a poll worker, told voters it was “incredibly safe to go out”.

A ‘rigged and stolen election’

After years of fighting Democrats, the 2020 election brought Vos into a separate and unexpectedly fierce conflict – with his own party.

A day before the scheduled certification of the presidential election in Congress, as Trump supporters piled into buses headed for Washington, DC for a rally that would devolve into the January 6 Capitol riot, 14 Wisconsin lawmakers – including 13 members of the assembly – signed a letter addressed to Mike Pence, the vice-president, urging him not to certify the election. The missive, signed by lawmakers in five swing states, accused governors and state officials of “obfuscation and intentional deception” and claimed state legislatures have the final say in certifying the election results. The chair and vice-chair of the Wisconsin assembly committee on campaigns and elections were among the signatories.

Vos did not sign. But in a press conference that day, he told reporters he took the party’s rightwing base seriously and said the widespread doubt about the election results called for a re-evaluation of the electoral process. Since then, he’s sought to walk a tightrope of appeasing his base while refusing to bow to their wildest demands. But that has proven challenging.

Trump and his allies spent months filing lawsuits to try to overturn his loss in Wisconsin and other states. When his lawsuit asking the Wisconsin supreme court to toss out thousands of votes cast in Democratic strongholds failed, he tried to pressure Vos and other Republicans in the legislature to decertify the election themselves.

“I think it is unlikely we would find enough cases of fraud to overturn the election,” Vos told reporters at the time, suggesting that the state first investigate the 2020 election.

The Republicans’ refusal to actually attempt to decertify the election angered Trump. In June 2021, as Wisconsin Republicans gathered for their annual convention, Trump issued a statement accusing Vos and other legislative party leaders of “working hard to cover up election corruption”.

Vos has responded to Trump’s attacks by alternatively rejecting his wild claims while at the same time granting political concessions to groups peddling conspiracy theories.

Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan election commissioner, became a target of false claims that she broke the law to hurt Trump in 2020.
Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan election commissioner, became a target of false claims that she broke the law to hurt Trump in 2020. Photograph: Ruthie Hauge/AP

Under pressure from Trump, Vos in 2021 announced an investigation into the election, appointing Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin supreme court justice who had bolstered Trump’s disproven claims of election fraud and spoken at a Wisconsin “Stop the Steal” rally shortly after the 2020 election, as special counsel. During his investigation, Gableman traveled across the US, speaking at an elections conference hosted by Lindell and viewing the discredited Cyber Ninjas election audit in Maricopa county, Arizona.

A year later, when the Wisconsin supreme court ruled that the use of ballot “dropboxes” during the 2020 election was unlawful, the former president approached Vos with another call to decertify the election. “I explained that it’s not allowed under the constitution,” Vos told WISN-TV 12 News in Milwaukee.

Trump was furious. Days later, the former president endorsed Adam Steen, Vos’s election-denying primary opponent, calling Steen a “rising patriotic candidate” and denouncing Vos.

Vos barely survived the primary, winning by less than 300 votes.

“One of my biggest regrets was hiring Gableman,” said Vos, who fired the judge days after his primary. “He was way wackier than I thought. He was disappointing. He was inept. He was way worse for the system.”

As Trump turned on Vos, cracks within the Wisconsin GOP deepened.

Vos was roundly booed at the state convention in 2022 for telling the delegates that lawmakers “have no ability to decertify the [2020] election and go back and nullify it” .That day, more than a third of the delegates voted to oust him from party leadership.

Vos will not break the law to try to win them over, but he’s still looking to win back some of their support – all while trying to keep himself and the Republican party in power amid a shakeup in the Wisconsin supreme court.

After voters elected liberal justice Janet Protasiewicz to the state’s highest court, Vos entertained the idea of impeaching her before she could rule on the constitutionality of the state’s gerrymandered maps, only dropping the cause when a panel of former justices recommended against it.

Vos has also come under pressure from election denying groups to oust Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan election commissioner who became a target of false claims that she broke the law to hurt Trump in 2020.

“As the leader, [Vos] takes the brunt of it,” said the state senator Duey Stroebel, a Republican who served in the assembly for four years and has, like Vos, worked on restrictive voting laws during his tenure. “He’s kind of the poster boy for these things.”

Vos has echoed calls for Wolfe to step down. But he has slow-walked impeachment efforts, referring impeachment articles to an assembly committee in November, where they have languished since. A group that goes by the name “Wisconsin Elections Commission, Inc” has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and newspaper ads running regularly since November pressuring Vos to impeach Wolfe.

“It’s not gonna happen,” Vos said brusquely, voicing his irritation at Trump and his allies’ unyielding focus on the 2020 election. “Donald Trump’s unhealthy obsession with 2020 is not what Americans want to hear about in 2024.”

But at this point, it seems unlikely Vos can do much more to satisfy the far right base of his party. Even if he pivots and sees Wolfe’s impeachment through, a move that could destabilize elections ahead of 2024, the right wing will likely continue to ramp up their anti-democratic demands.

“As long as Donald Trump is politically active, they will be politically active,” said Bernier, who has been vocal in pushing back against Trump’s election lies – and counts Vos as a friend. Wisconsin activists who challenge election outcomes, she said, “will continue this until Donald Trump is no more”.