Troy (no last name given), a cross-country truck driver from Texas, participates in a pro-President Donald Trump rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 7, 2020. At least 22 Wisconsin Republican Assembly candidates with a chance of taking office in 2023 have expressed doubts about the results of the 2020 election, a Wisconsin Watch review shows. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)
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In a far northern Wisconsin Assembly district — critical for Republicans to win a legislative supermajority on Tuesday — GOP candidate Angie Sapik’s campaign website presents many of the key issues Republicans are emphasizing on the campaign trail this year: fighting inflation, cutting taxes, giving parents more control of schools.

Nowhere does Sapik mention debunked claims of widespread 2020 election fraud or even the more sanitized party line about “election integrity.” Yet in thousands of now-deleted tweets, Sapik spewed profanities, endorsed political violence, embraced 2020 election conspiracies, supported the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection and even denounced her own Republican Party, describing it as “a thing of the past” split between “RINOs and true Patriots.” 

In this now-deleted tweet, Republican Assembly candidate Angie Sapik highlights the split in her party, describing it as a “thing of the past” and split between “RINOSs (Republicans in name only) and true Patriots.” (Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee)

The contrast between Sapik’s past rhetoric and current election messaging speaks to a broader family feud within the Republican Party of Wisconsin, something state GOP chair Paul Farrow said has been “one of the biggest challenges we had all year.”

On one side are the Trump faithful, still wanting to overturn the 2020 election results. On the other are more traditional conservatives, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who tried to appease Trump supporters by passing election-related bills — but routing them away from one of the Legislature’s top election deniers

Vos also spent some $1.5 million in taxpayer funds on a fruitless 2020 election investigation. Still, some Republicans called to “toss Vos” — a move that nearly cost him his district seat in the August primary.

“We’re listening to both sides,” Farrow told Wisconsin Watch. “There’s more and more that are realizing that the focus right now is to win in 2022. If we do that then we can start looking at election integrity moving forward. … Not everybody is in agreement on that, but I would say the vast majority now is in that position.”

Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Paul Farrow acknowledges the debate over the 2020 election and how to address election issues has divided his party, calling it “one of the biggest challenges we had all year.” (PBS Wisconsin) 

Emblematic of the GOP divide is the party’s gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels, who early in the primary suggested the Legislature could perform the legally impossible feat of decertifying the 2020 election, then said it wouldn’t be a priority before settling on “everything will be on the table.”

In the last Marquette Law School Poll before Tuesday’s election, 60% of Wisconsin Republicans continued to hold doubts about the 2020 election. About a third of independents and less than 1% of Democrats polled expressed a lack of confidence in the outcome.

Reports and reviews by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, The Associated Press, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and partial recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties found no widespread fraud and confirmed Joe Biden’s win in Wisconsin.

Election observers, right, look on and ask questions through plexiglass screens as officials at the Dane County recount sort through ballots by hand at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 21, 2020. Partial recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties verified Joe Biden’s win for president in Wisconsin. However, most Republicans in the state say they continue to lack confidence in the outcome. (Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch)

Among legislative candidates, Wisconsin Watch found at least 22 of the 68 Republicans running in Assembly districts where they have a slim to solid chance of winning have cast doubt on the 2020 election results. That count is based on reviews of past statements and websites and does not include support for election law changes, an overhaul of the Wisconsin Elections Commission or Vos’ election investigation — all of which garnered widespread Republican support.

Which Republican Party will emerge?

Mixed messaging like Sapik’s makes it difficult to know what kind of influence the most strident proponents of the false 2020 stolen election narrative will have next session, when the Legislature could play a crucial role in changing election rules — or even certifying the results of the 2024 presidential election.

Farrow said he expects Vos will return as speaker next session after a “robust conversation.” A few of Vos’ GOP allies, like Rep. Tyler August of Lake Geneva, beat back primary challenges from candidates who emphasized election issues.

The Legislature’s most vocal election denier, Rep. Tim Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, left office to run unsuccessfully for governor. Ty Bodden, the Republican running unopposed in Ramthun’s district, lists first on his campaign’s issues web page: “Secure our elections, eliminate any chance of election fraud and restore trust in our election process.”

Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, has been one of the Legislature’s top 2020 election deniers, an issue that has split the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Ramthun ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022. He is seen during Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Feb 15, 2022. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

The majority of Republicans running in safe GOP or competitive districts don’t mention election integrity or fraud on their websites, a Wisconsin Watch review found. In the 12 most competitive Assembly districts, only two Republican candidates even mention election issues on their campaign websites.

Even though Republican candidates are focusing on inflation, tax cuts, education reform and crime, the only bills mentioned in detail on the state party’s website are 29 election-related measures the party introduced this past session.

On Wednesday, the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin editorial board took the rare step of making an election endorsement, backing Evers and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. The board noted their opponents, Republicans Michels and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, “continue to cast doubt on the 2020 election,” arguing they lack a “commitment to basic democratic principles” that is “dangerous.”

Abortion, Trump and democracy are ‘not the winning hand’

Assembly Democratic Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said just because Republicans have stopped talking about elections on the campaign trail doesn’t mean they have dropped plans to overhaul the election system in ways to further enhance their electoral edge.

Assembly Democratic Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, says just because Republicans have stopped talking about elections on the campaign trail doesn’t mean they have dropped plans to overhaul the election system in ways to further enhance their electoral edge. She is seen at the State of the State address at the Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Jan. 24, 2018. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

“They don’t want voters to actually weigh in on those issues,” Neubauer told Wisconsin Watch. “They want to be able to make those (election) process changes and hope that no one notices.”

Wednesday’s Marquette poll found the top issues concerning all voters are inflation, public schools, crime and gun violence. “Accurate vote count” ranked fifth, ahead of abortion, with 56% saying they are very concerned about the election issue, compared with 68% who said the same about inflation. 

But, among Republicans, “accurate vote count” is now the top issue, with 81% saying they are very concerned.

Vos didn’t respond to an interview request, but former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen said Republican candidates are focused on the issues that voters care about.

“Democrats’ ads are all about abortion, Trump and democracy,” Jensen, a Republican, said at a recent WisPolitics luncheon. “That’s not the winning hand. It may stave off some losses in certain places. …They are not going to be able to run the table with that.” 

University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner said the Republican focus on “election integrity” is “genius” in that “it’s vague enough that supporters will read into it what they want to. Someone can say, we know about all the problems with 2020. An election denier will say, ‘Yes it was stolen.’ ”

GOP control secure in Wisconsin

Democrats concede Republicans will continue to control the Senate and Assembly, largely due to Republican-drawn political maps that insulate GOP majorities even in Democratic wave elections.

Republicans say a two-thirds supermajority that could override a gubernatorial veto is within reach, although they acknowledge it’s a stretch. In the Senate it’s considered far more likely, with Republicans needing to pick up only one seat for a two-thirds majority. 

Republicans are targeting the 25th and 31st Senate districts, both in Trump strongholds in northwest Wisconsin. Neither of the Republicans in those two races — Romaine Quinn and Dave Estenson — mention election issues on their websites.

Rudy Zablocki, center, of Itasca, Ill., rallies in support of President Donald Trump at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 7, 2020. “Trump’s election was stolen, it’s obvious,” he says, echoing the president’s false claims of election fraud. The chairman of the Fond du Lac Republican Party says such rhetoric is damaging to the GOP and the country. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Of the dozen Assembly seats that appear to be competitive, Democrats only have to hold onto three, including three districts that Biden won comfortably in 2020. And for Republicans to win those seats, they likely would need Michels, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, to do well enough to defeat incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, which would give them control over legislating anyway.

But Republicans are bullish about picking up longtime Democratic districts like the open 73rd seat held by retiring Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, where Sapik faces Superior School Board member Laura Gapske.

The pro-Republican Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin has spent more money on the race than any other Assembly seat so far this cycle, and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee recently pumped more than a quarter million dollars in cash and in-kind donations to Sapik’s campaign. Democrats have fought back with more than $300,000 in contributions to Gapske and   a website with Sapik’s deleted tweets recovered using an internet archive service.

Republican Assembly candidate Angie Sapik doesn’t mention the “stolen” 2020 election on her website even though now-deleted tweets show she was a major advocate of such rhetoric. Instead, Sapik is focusing on issues that many other candidates in close races highlight such as fighting inflation, cutting taxes and giving parents more control of schools. (Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee)

Gapske told Wisconsin Watch the race has been one of the most “hostile” in the state this year. She has filed three police reports after receiving nasty phone calls. The calls came after mailers and radio ads with her personal phone number attacked her support for a fifth grade human growth and development curriculum explaining how a person’s sex and gender can differ.

The 73rd District has been represented by Democrats for decades and despite new, more Republican-leaning maps, Gapske said she is hopeful she can win, especially after knocking on doors and talking to Republicans fed up with Trump.

“There are still real Republicans out there,” Gapske said, “and they are not for Jan. 6.” 

Calls for ‘election integrity’ continue

While Sapik, who did not respond to a Wisconsin Watch interview request, is staying mum on the 2020 election, other GOP candidates are continuing to make election integrity a top issue.

In the 74th Assembly District, which neighbors the 73rd along Lake Superior and would be another Republican pickup of a longtime Democratic seat, Republican Chanz Green highlights five issues including “Securing our elections, clarifying election law, and guaranteeing that your vote counts!”

Tom Michalski lists election integrity first on his priorities webpage in the 13th Assembly District, a suburban Milwaukee district Democrats narrowly flipped in 2020 but which Republicans expect to win back after redistricting.

State Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, left, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, center, defeated 2020 election skeptics in Republican primaries in August 2022. They are seen with Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, during Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Feb 15, 2022. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

“Events in recent elections have eroded the public trust in the election process,” Michalski states on the page. “Confidence in the election process must be restored. Changes in Election Law are a necessity.”

The Washington Post reported there are nearly 300 Republicans on ballots across the country who have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Those counts only include top-ticket races for statewide office and Congress.

In Wisconsin, the Washington Post listed U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald, who represents the 5th Congressional District between Milwaukee and Madison, and Tom Tiffany, who represents the 7th Congressional District in northwest Wisconsin. The paper also included Republican Derrick Van Orden, who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6 and is running for the open 3rd Congressional District seat in western Wisconsin, and Michels, the GOP nominee for governor.

People participate in a pro-Donald Trump rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 7, 2020. Earlier in the day major media organizations had called the presidential election in favor of Democratic candidate Joe Biden. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

A Wisconsin Watch review shows 11 legislative incumbents signed a letter in November 2020 asking Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the election results. They are Sen. Andre Jacque of De Pere, and Reps. Janel Brandtjen of Menomonee Falls, Robert Brooks of Saukville, Rick Gundrum of Slinger, Dan Knodl of Germantown, Gae Magnafici of Dresser, Dave Murphy of Greenville, Jeff Mursau of Crivitz, Michael Schraa of Oshkosh, Shae Sortwell of Two Rivers, and Chuck Wichgers of Muskego. Of those, seven have campaign websites, and only two of them — Brandtjen and Gundrum — mention elections as an issue.

Rep. David Steffen of Green Bay didn’t sign the letter, but along with Mursau joined a lawsuit seeking to block certification of the election results. Rep. Elijah Behnke also didn’t sign the letter, but was filmed in his office calling Vos a “swamp creature” and voicing support for election conspiracies.

Some have tried to walk a finer line, leaving open doubt about the 2020 election results. Rep. Ron Tusler of Harrison, for example, told the New York Times earlier this year that evidence of fraud “might be out there.” When it comes to decertification of the 2020 election results, Tusler said, “It’s possible we try it later.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Matthew DeFour / Wisconsin WatchStatehouse Bureau Chief

Matthew DeFour started in September 2022 as Wisconsin Watch's first statehouse bureau chief. Previously at the Wisconsin State Journal he covered state and local government for 16 years, including four years as state politics editor. He has a BSJ and MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He was honored by his peers as the 2020 Wisconsin Watchdog of the Year.