A day after being attacked by former President Donald Trump, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told Wisconsin Republicans at their annual convention that former conservative state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman would oversee an investigation of the 2020 election.
Gableman, Vos said, would oversee three retired police officers who were hired by the Wisconsin Assembly. Vos said the group is "looking into the shenanigans" that happened in the 2020 election, which Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed he won.
"We wanted to make sure that you were the first people to know," Vos told GOP activists. "Because you are the ones who have done everything possible to make sure that our conservative candidates win for the Legislature, from the county clerk all the way up to the presidency."
Gableman served a single 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court before stepping down in 2018. While he promised that his work on the election probe would not be partisan, Gableman's Republican ties run deep, and GOP activists greeted him warmly Saturday.
"I'm glad to be here — glad to see so many friends," Gableman said. "When I fought evil every day at the state Supreme Court for 10 years, I fought for you."
Gableman, who attended a Nov. 7, 2020 rally supporting Trump, said he knew a lot of people at the convention were disappointed with how the presidential election was run.
"And you didn't just grumble about it and go back home and let it let bygones be bygones," Gableman said. "You recognize that this one is where we draw the line."
Democrats said the announcement of Gableman's hiring at the state GOP convention underscored the true partisan intent of Vos' investigation.
"Gabelman says the big problem is people not trusting the election," tweeted Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler. "Vos & Gabelman are part of Operation Destroy Trust."
Before joining the court, Gableman was briefly Ashland County's district attorney and served six years as a Burnett County Circuit Court judge. He was appointed to the judgeship by former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.
Gableman is a former chair of the Ashland County Republican Party and relied on GOP support to win his 2008 state Supreme Court race against incumbent Justice Louis Butler. His election secured a 4-3 conservative majority on the court, which later went on to uphold major pillars of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker's agenda. Gabelman himself wrote opinions that upheld Walker's Act 10 collective bargaining law and shut down a semi-secret John Doe investigation involving Walker's campaign.
Gableman ran a false attack ad against Butler during his 2008 campaign that prompted an investigation by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. While staff at the agency alleged that Gableman ran the ad "with reckless disregard for the truth," Gableman's colleagues on the Supreme Court split 3-3 on whether to pursue the complaint, and it was dropped.
In addition to Gableman, the state Assembly under Vos' direction has already hired Mike Sandvick, a retired Milwaukee police detective with ties to the GOP, and Steve Page, who Vos has said previously worked for the city of Eau Claire. The Associated Press reported that the investigators were being paid $3,200 a month by taxpayers to investigate "potential irregularities and/or illegalities" in the 2020 presidential election. Vos has not named the third investigator and has not said what Gableman will be paid.
While Gableman said it had been "several days" since he was offered the position, the announcement of his hiring came the day after Vos, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg and Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield were criticized by name in a mass email from Trump.
"Wisconsin Republican leaders Robin Vos, Chris Kapenga, and Devin LeMahieu, are working hard to cover up election corruption, in Wisconsin," read the written statement from Trump issued Friday night. "They are actively trying to prevent a Forensic Audit of the election results."
Trump said Vos, Kapenga and LeMahieu needed to "step up and support the people who elected them" or they would be primaried and quickly run out of office.
Vos told reporters Saturday morning that Trump was "misinformed." GOP lawmakers have ordered the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct an audit of the 2020 election. On Saturday, several Wisconsin Republicans used the word "forensic" when describing the audit.
Kapenga released a public letter to Trump where he effusively praised the former president but said Trump was mistaken.
"I feel I need to respond even though you will likely never hear of it, as the power of your pen to mine is like Thor’s hammer to a Bobby pin," Kapenga wrote. "Nevertheless, I need to correct your false claim against me."
Kapenga said in his letter that he had "made specific requests on procedures and locations" as part of the election audit. Kapenga also noted that he was about to board a plane, where he would wear his Trump socks and a Trump face mask.
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While it's been almost eight months since President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Trump has never stopped pushing the false claim that Biden lost.
In Wisconsin, where Biden defeated Trump by 20,682 votes, Trump and his allies lost repeated efforts to overturn the election in state and federal court. The former president's string of losses included a rebuke by U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig, himself a Trump nominee. The U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, also rejected GOP efforts to overturn Wisconsin's election.
GOP lawmakers have passed a wide range of bills that would ban some of the types of voting Wisconsin residents used to cast their ballots in 2020. The bills, which are likely headed for veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, would make it harder for people to declare themselves "indefinitely confined" and ban events like Madison's "Democracy in the Park."
Other GOP proposals would increase penalties for voter fraud, which is exceedingly rare in Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, local clerks in Wisconsin referred just 13 allegations of suspected fraud in the November 2020 election to district attorneys. Nearly 3.3 million votes were cast in the state.
Despite his written warning to Wisconsin Republicans, Trump still appeared in a video message broadcast at the convention where he praised the state GOP. Trump, who has signaled he will run again in 2024, also promised a return to Wisconsin.
"I appreciate all of the incredible work you have done for me," Trump said. "We are going to be together a long time."
During a debate Saturday evening, a group of GOP activists advanced a resolution calling for Vos' resignation, suggesting the Speaker should have fought the expanded use of absentee ballot drop boxes during the 2020 election. The motion was defeated on a voice vote.
Ron Johnson Attacks Democrats, Leaves Republicans Guessing About 2022
When U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson first ran for office in 2010, he used that year's state GOP convention to effectively launch his campaign. Johnson alluded to his first run during his speech Saturday, but he made no such announcement.
"When I stepped up to the plate about 11 years ago ... I ran because I was panicked for our nation," Johnson said. "Now I've been serving for 11 years. I've seen the change. And I hate to admit it. I'm more panicked."
In 2016, Johnson pledged not to seek a third term in office, but he has since distanced himself from that promise. Several Republicans said Saturday that they wanted Johnson to run, including Hitt.
"Make sure you give Sen. Johnson a warm welcome," Hitt told the crowd ahead of Johnson's speech. "Let's give him a warm welcome and coax this decision."
Johnson sent mixed messages during his remarks, saying the state GOP's mission should be to unify the nation while at the same time suggesting Democratic leaders don't love the United States.
"The left talk about fundamentally transforming this nation," Johnson said. "Do you even like, much less love, something you want to fundamentally transform?"
"What are the fundamental differences between them and us?" Johnson continued. "For some reason, their leaders are not real satisfied with what America represents."
Johnson said he had seen a change in the public during his tenure, moving away from "Wisconsin nice" to more aggressive, personal confrontations. He referenced Milwaukee's recent Juneteenth Day celebration, where Johnson — who had opposed making Juneteenth an additional paid federal holiday — was booed. Johnson blamed a "small group of just incredibly nasty and profane people."
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Senate Communications Advisor Philip Shulman said in a statement that Johnson had focused his speech on a self-serving agenda.
"Ron Johnson once again showed Wisconsinites that he’s only concerned with fulfilling his personal ambitions, not doing what is in their best interests," Shulman said.
Several Democrats have lined up to run against Johnson, including Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee state Sen. Chris Larson and Wausau doctor Gillian Battino.
Whether or not Johnson runs, Wisconsin's Senate race is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation. Other Republicans said to be considering the race should Johnson bow out include U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher and Kevin Nicholson, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2018.
While Saturday's convention, which was broadcast by Wisconsin Eye, provided a window into what's motivating the GOP base in 2021, next year's convention could be more consequential. Republicans use their even year conventions to nominate candidates for contested statewide office, and could have multiple candidates running for governor, if not Senate.