Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Both Parties Face Pre-Election Turmoil

Republicans struggle with deep divisions, Democrats with sinking poll numbers.

By - Feb 14th, 2022 10:50 am
Tony Evers and Robin Vos.

Tony Evers and Robin Vos.

With less than nine months before Wisconsin voters elect a U.S. senator, governor, U.S. House members, attorney general and legislators, both of the state’s political parties are in disarray.

One worry: Will doubts about how votes are cast and counted and legislators who want to dictate how the state Elections Commission works, keep many voters away from the polls on Nov. 8? Or will two hotly contested primaries — for the Republican nomination for governor and the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator — help drive turnout?

Because Republicans control the lawmaking branch of state government, let’s first consider the controversies roiling that party. Former President Donald Trump praised a two-term Assembly member, Tim Ramthun, who contends President Joe Biden was fraudulently elected, as a candidate for governor. Trump’s first choice, ex-Congressman Sean Duffy, decided to not run.

“You got to do what you got to do to make a difference,” Ramthun, 64, declared at his Saturday campaign announcement in Kewaskum. Ramthun had his full-time Capitol staffer removed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos for claiming that the speaker cut a secret deal with Democrats to allow dropbox voting – a punishment other Assembly Republicans praised.

But Ramthun’s one-issue campaign complicates the already ugly feud between candidates Rebecca Kleefisch, lieutenant governor for eight years, and business consultant Kevin Nicholson. Vos was denounced by Trump loyalists for telling Nicholson to not run against Kleefisch.

And the speaker is in court fighting attempts to get documents about his hiring and monitoring of former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who is secretly investigating how the 2020 election was conducted in Wisconsin. Gableman is also in court fighting lawsuits from mayors and other targets of his investigation, which may not end until March – days before the Legislature, which is expected to act on his recommendations, is scheduled to go home for the year.

Meanwhile, the former Republican state chairman, Andrew Hitt, and another party official, Republican-appointed Elections Commission member, Robert Spindell, were among those who attended a secret Capitol ceremony where a fake Electoral College statement was signed saying Trump won the state.

Biden won Wisconsin by 20,600 votes, out of 3.2 million votes cast.

Trump’s team advised a former Dane County judge, James Troupis, that the fake electors could submit their Trump-won petition to Congress, if then-Vice President Mike Pence went along with the conspiracy. Instead, Pence certified the votes of real Electoral College delegates from Wisconsin and elsewhere for Biden.

Trump’s gambit got Hitt a subpoena from the Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators plan to pass election-law changes that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has promised to veto. They also plan first-round consideration of a constitutional amendment banning third-party groups from donating to help pay for Wisconsin elections.

One veteran Republican and former gubernatorial appointee said his biggest fear was that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson would not run again. But Johnson is seeking a third term. The Republican source dismissed concerns that Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate election could repeat Georgia, where two Republicans lost after many of their supporters didn’t vote. Trump didn’t like either of Georgia’s Republican candidates, the GOP source said, but Johnson “will kiss the [Trump] ring.”

Republicans are now divided into two factions – “pro-Trump” and “reasonable,” he added.

But, if you think all this has Democrats singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” think again. Inflation, mask wars, divided Democrats in Congress and the U.S. Senate’s 50-50 partisan split have tanked Biden’s pre-election popularity. Off-year elections often punish the party of first-term presidents.

And, November’s Marquette Law School poll found that only 40% of those surveyed would again vote for Evers, who doesn’t know who his running mate will be.

Two veteran Democratic leaders in the Legislature – Gordon Hintz in the Assembly and Janet Bewley in the Senate – have stepped down. Bewley’s decision to not run again means Senate Democrats in January will have their fourth leader in 11 years.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision letting stand – for now – new legislative district lines drawn by Georgia Republicans could signal more bad news for Democrats. It could mean that federal judges will agree with whatever new legislative district lines are drawn by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. All maps pending before the state Supreme Court – even those submitted by lawyers for Evers – give Republicans continued control, based on past voting patterns, of both the Assembly and Senate.

“Wisconsin is crazy – both parties,” noted a former adviser to past governors.

 Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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