Donald Trump didn’t name names in his recent statement, demanding that a taxpayer-funded probe of the 2020 election in Wisconsin continue past its expiration date.
But his target and message were clear. A day after the former President warned of a “huge bump in the polls” for any primary challenger to Republicans who impeded the investigation, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appeared to comply. Vos announced that the controversial investigation, which is being overseen by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, would keep going.
The episode offers the latest illustration of Trump’s continued assault on the legitimacy of the 2020 election – and the willingness of some Republicans to indulge it 18 months after his loss. But it also raises questions of whether the intense focus on baseless claims of election fraud could prove costly in a battleground state often won by the thinnest of margins.
The stakes are high in November: Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is seeking a second term, and US Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, is up for reelection in a contest that could help determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s first term.
The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page this week warned of dire consequences in the state with a headline calling the Gableman probe a “Republican plot to lose Wisconsin in 2022.”
Trump “lost Wisconsin in 2020 on his own,” the Journal’s editorial said, “and if Republicans keep chasing ghosts, he will also help them lose in 2022.”
Marquette University political scientist Paul Nolette said GOP leaders in this perennial swing state are trying to perform a tricky balancing act.
They “want to have a focus on issues that voters more broadly care about, issues like inflation,” Nolette said. “But for Republican voters, this is motivating, this question about fraud… Many of them are cheering on the Gableman investigation.”
Polls bear that out: Nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin Republicans said they were not confident in the 2020 results, according to an October survey by Marquette’s law school.
And a CNN national survey last September found that 78% of Republicans said Biden had not won in 2020, and 54% believe there is solid evidence of fraud, despite the fact that no such evidence exists.
This week’s come-from-behind victory for Republican J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate primary following Trump’s endorsement has further demonstrated the former President’s enduring grip on the GOP base. And as he travels the country stumping for his favored candidates, he show no signs of relenting from the false claim that fraud and widespread corruption in elections cost him the presidency.
For instance, a Friday rally in Pennsylvania to tout Trump’s endorsement of Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and a clutch of other Republicans is scheduled to kick off with a screening of a movie by conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza that attempts to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Controversy from the start
Biden won Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes in 2020, a victory that has survived multiple lawsuits and election reviews.
But Vos, under pressure from Trump and his allies, announced his hiring of Gableman in June 2021. The effort has faced bipartisan blowback.
Months before he was hired by Vos as a special counsel, Gableman appeared at a November 7, 2020, rally and said he believed the Wisconsin election had been stolen.
In his probe, he has threatened to jail local officials who refuse to answer his questions in private interviews.
Meanwhile, a memo recently uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel appears to show Gableman’s team probing the backgrounds of public employees.
One case – part of an unsigned document posted on Gableman’s website and entitled “Cross Pollinators” – concludes that a Milwaukee city employee was likely a Democrat because she “has a weird nose ring,” plays video games, “loves nature and snakes” and lives with her boyfriend although they are not married.
Gableman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement about Gableman’s contract, Vos did not mention Trump but said the special counsel’s office was remaining open to preserve its power to issue subpoenas and deal with remaining lawsuits. A hearing in the case where Gableman is threatening officials with jail time, for instance, is scheduled for July.
Gableman, Vos added, had agreed to work for a lower salary to help keep costs down. An initial contract called for him to earn $11,000 a month. But it’s not clear what he currently receives.
Vos spokeswoman Angela Joyce said in an email to CNN that the updated contract is still being finalized.
Fraud claims loom in governor’s race
The grievances over the 2020 election also have spilled into the battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, viewed as an early establishment favorite for the GOP nomination, recently has sharpened her rhetoric, saying in a radio interview last week that she believed the 2020 election was “rigged.”
Kleefisch and another GOP contender, Kevin Nicholson, want to dissolve the state’s bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission. The six-member panel, established by Republican lawmakers in 2015, has been the target of conservative ire for easing voting rules during the pandemic. Businessman Tim Michels, who joined the race last month, has said he has “questions” about the 2020 election.
Another Republican gubernatorial contender, hard-line state Rep. Tim Ramthun, meanwhile, sought to push a resolution to rescind Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes that went to Biden, although there is no mechanism in state or federal law to do so.
The primary is August 9.
Brandon Scholz, a veteran Republican strategist in Wisconsin, said election fraud won’t necessarily be the “driving issue” for all Republican voters. But the candidates have practical concerns.
“There’s no question that some of this is catering to Donald Trump so that he doesn’t stick his nose into these primary campaigns,” Scholz said.
“You don’t want him endorsing the other candidate like he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That’s why most all of the candidates are positioning themselves that way.”