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Republicans Test Their Dumb Luck in Wisconsin

Is treating voters like they're stupid a winning strategy? We'll find out on November 8.
October 26, 2022
Republicans Test Their Dumb Luck in Wisconsin
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

Living in Wisconsin, it’s easy to feel an outsized sense of importance. Once again, we find ourselves in a pivotal state at a key moment. Once again, the eyes of the nation are upon us.

And so, once again, I find myself wishing to the cosmic powers that be, for my own sake and that of my fellow Cheeseheads, please don’t let us look like a bunch of idiots.

Because, honestly, we’re not. This is a state of decent and hard-working people. It’s just that we have always been politically divided, torn between our two most famous U.S. senators, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Joe McCarthy. (Both, by the way, were Republicans when they served in Congress.)

Wisconsin passed the nation’s first workers’ compensation law in 1911. It was the first state, in 1919, to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. It was the first state to enact unemployment compensation benefits (1932) and the first to recognize collective bargaining rights for public employees (1959).

But as journalist Dan Kaufman noted in his 2018 book, The Fall of Wisconsin,

In recent years, Wisconsin has gone from being a widely admired “laboratory of democracy” to a testing ground for national conservatives bent on remaking American politics. Its century-old progressive legacy has been dismantled in virtually every area: labor rights, environmental protection, voting rights, government transparency.

In the 1980s and 1990s, under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin vastly increased its prison population through get-tough-on-crime policies that Thompson now regrets. Wisconsin also led the nation in cracking down on welfare benefits to people in need by introducing demanding job-seeking requirements for recipients. In 2011, under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the state largely revoked the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees, spurring historic protests that sharply divided the people of Wisconsin into opposing camps, where they remain today.

But, whether in its progressive or regressive phases, Wisconsin is not full of stupid people. Oh, there are some, but by and large the people of Wisconsin are not as dumb as the Republicans now running for office apparently consider them to be. And I’m hoping the November 8 election will prove it.

Recently, Adam Steen, a candidate in a down-ballot but fascinating Wisconsin state legislative race, was caught in a secretly recorded phone call agreeing with a campaign volunteer who said, “We just have stupid voters.” The volunteer was referring to people who decided to support Steen based solely on his endorsement from Donald Trump. Steen also mused about breaking state election law as a stunt to get attention, and when someone told him his volunteers were “legitimately barbaric,” he replied, “Correct.”

In the state’s GOP primary in August, Steen came within 260 votes of beating Wisconsin’s longtime state assembly speaker, Robin Vos, based solely on Trump’s endorsement. Steen is now running a write-in campaign against Vos, whom Trump loathes because he has refused to overturn the results of Wisconsin’s 2020 election—a legal impossibility.

Earlier this month, Steen held a “Toss Vos” campaign event featuring a giant slingshot he and others used to fling effigies of his opponent. First, he said a prayer, which included: “Help us, as the government officials that we’re seeking to become, that we can represent the citizens of this great nation . . . in light of the rights that you’ve given us, that were bestowed upon us at our birth, that begins at conception, period, Lord.”

Actually, there is a real chance that Steen, who has called for decertifying the 2020 election, could succeed in tossing Vos, the legislature’s most prominent Republican. Even if Steen doesn’t get more votes than Vos, the race between the two could gobble up enough votes for Democratic write-in candidate Joel Jacobsen to prevail. Jacobsen has run against Vos twice before, both times garnering more than one-third of the vote.

Competitive legislative races are a rarity in Wisconsin, given the alacrity with which Republicans have redrawn voting boundaries. In the 2018 elections, Democrats won every statewide race, from U.S. Senate to governor to secretary of state, and Republicans still managed to end up with a 19-14 majority in the state senate and a 63-36 edge in the state assembly. Republicans also won five out of the state’s eight House seats.

Now it looks as though the GOP will be picking up a sixth Wisconsin House seat. District 3 in western Wisconsin is wide open following the retirement of longtime Democratic incumbent Ron Kind. Republican Derrick Van Orden, endorsed by Trump, is leading Democrat Brad Pfaff in fundraising and polling. Pfaff is a member of the state Senate. Van Orden, an “American patriot, retired Navy SEAL, husband, father, grandfather, and Christian,” came within three percentage points of beating Kind in 2020.

Van Orden attended Trump’s January 6th rally leading up to the attack on the Capitol but says he never entered the grounds. (The Daily Beast has reported that he did just that, posting photos to social media that show him in a restricted area that he could have reached only by crossing police barricades.) He paid for the trip using campaign funds. When the Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint about this, the Federal Election Commission decided the amount of the expenditure, a few hundred dollars, was so small that it “does not merit the expenditure of further Commission resources to pursue.” Van Orden falsely claimed the matter “was summarily dismissed due to its obvious political motivation,” calling the complaint “the type of weaponization of government that every American should be wary of.”

Van Orden knows a thing or two about weaponization. In August 2021, he was nabbed at an airport screening checkpoint in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for having a loaded 9mm Sig Sauer handgun in his carryon bag. He was fined for this transgression, which his campaign described as an accident while indignantly asserting that Van Orden is “a decorated Navy SEAL veteran with 5 deployments to combat zones who is an expert with firearms and firearm safety.”

Rule No. 2 of firearm safety: Don’t try to take a handgun onto an airplane. Rule No. 1: Don’t forget where you put your loaded weapons.

The GOP’s presumption of voter stupidity is especially acute in Wisconsin’s two marquee races—the one for governor between one-term Democrat Gov. Tony Evers and construction company exec Tim Michels, and the one between Democrat Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, now seeking the third term he promised not to seek.

In both races, the GOP contenders are using messaging that clearly conveys their conviction that the people whose votes they seek are dumb.

Take Michels’s insistence that his lack of experience in government is an asset. He was making this claim back in 2004, when he won the GOP nomination but lost a race for U.S. Senate, and he’s making it still. His pitch to voters is roughly this: I’m a businessman. If elected, I will find out whatever is wrong and fix it. 

In his one and only debate against Evers, in mid-October, Michaels was asked what he would do about rising inflation. He replied: “What are some of the problems? Joe Biden: weak on inflation. Canceling the Keystone pipeline. What can we do? We can put more money in people’s pockets. I’m a businessman. I understand macroeconomics. I understand how to read a balance sheet.”

Asked about the state’s formula for sharing revenue with municipalities, Michels veered off to the subject of crime, which he said was “surging all . . . across Wisconsin.” Reminded that the question was about shared revenue, he said:

You know, there’s plenty of money in government. There’s 43-and-a-half billion dollars spent every year. Those are the taxpayers’ money. I’m going to sit down with the legislature and the smart people, my lieutenant governor, Roger Roth—we’re going to make sure that we come up with the right formulas, and we are going to adequately make sure that there’s funding for the issues that the people of Wisconsin are so concerned about. And really at the top of the list is inflation, and then there’s crime, then it’s followed by education. But I’m here to tell you that help is on the way.

Surprisingly often, during this debate, Michels indicated that the way to solve problems was to hike spending. He even pledged, “We’re going to spend as much money as any governor ever has on education.” This is interesting because, in a primary debate, Michels called putting more money into education “the definition of insanity.” That would make him, by his own reckoning, insane.

There is no hobgoblin of foolish consistency troubling Tim Michels’s mind. During the debate, he touted Wisconsin as “such a great state to raise a family in,” even though all three of his children graduated from high school in other states, where Michels and his wife own multimillion-dollar homes. Asked about guns, he claimed, “I have a solution for that” but then made clear he has no intention of doing anything to make guns harder for dangerous people to obtain. He said he’d just met with law enforcement officials in one Wisconsin county who “told me that three quarters—75 percent—of recent homicides were stabbings. Those weren’t gun violence. It was knife violence. The left always just wants to take away guns and think that’s the problem.”

Michels is aggressively pro-life, only grudgingly agreeing to exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother, in a state where a solid majority of people support legal abortion in all or most cases. (For now, in Wisconsin, abortion is illegal under a 1849 law except when the mother’s life is at risk.)

And Michels has pledged to sign into law the many changes to the state’s election law that Republican lawmakers have tried to pass only to be thwarted by Evers’s veto pen. A win for Michels could determine whether Republicans could have legal cover to steal the 2024 election in Wisconsin and perhaps the nation.

During the debate, Michels cheerily vowed that, if elected, “I’m going to fix the election process and make sure that no one in Wisconsin—no Republican, independent, or Democrat—ever has another question about election integrity.”

Good luck with that.

Beyond a doubt, the winner of Wisconsin’s “Who Considers the Voters Dumbest?” sweepstakes is Sen. Ron Johnson, widely seen as the GOP’s most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the Nov. 8 election yet now leading in the polls. The race could decide whether Democrats keep control of the Senate or possibly even get the two-seat edge they need to bust the filibuster.

Johnson has publicly cast doubt on the 2020 election result while privately conceding that Biden won. He even took part in a scheme to present a slate of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence to help him steal the election for Trump. He claims his goal is to “protect” Medicare and Social Security even as he has proposed stripping both programs of their status as entitlements and making them subject to the year-to-year whims of Congress.

Amazingly, Johnson even refused to take a stand against a company that decided to move jobs from Wisconsin to South Carolina, where the workers are cheaper, saying “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin.”

Johnson is a fabulist who has spun dangerous misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, even refusing to get vaccinated himself. He’s touted quack cures for the virus, from Ivermectin to hydroxychloroquine to mouthwash. He’s called the science of climate change “bullshit,” even as a warming planet is, as climate scientists have long predicted, causing havoc across the nation and world.

In response to the January 6th siege on the Capitol, Johnson proclaimed that the attackers were “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” (He added, unnecessarily, that if the crowd beating up cops at this event were “Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”)

During one of his two debates against Barnes, Johnson accused the FBI of having “set me up . . . with a corrupt briefing and then leaked that to smear me”—a reference to a warning he received from agents in 2020 that he was being cultivated as a tool of Russian disinformation. He said the FBI’s corruption was something “I’ve been trying to uncover and expose.”

Members of the audience burst into laughter. It was the right reaction.

Both Barnes and Evers are imperfect candidates. But they are not, like their Republican opponents, manifestly unfit. The fact is that the campaigns of both Johnson and Michels consist almost entirely of blustery assertions of competence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, coupled with ridiculous allegations that their Democratic rivals are actively pro-criminal. That—and their endorsements from Trump—are all that Johnson and Michels have to offer. They think the voters of Wisconsin are dumb enough to buy it.

I hope, with all my heart, that this presumption is proven incorrect. It would not be the first time that the good people of Wisconsin got something right. And it would be a terrible time for us to be wrong.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.