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Rift between GOP leaders and critics of elections chief reaches Assembly floor

Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August called efforts to advance an impeachment resolution against Meagan Wolfe "a big show for the cameras."

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen and conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna speak at an "Audit the Vote" rally
Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, left, and conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna, right, speak at an “Audit the Vote” rally at the state Capitol Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Will Kenneally/PBS Wisconsin

Days after a Republican lawmaker and staunch ally of former President Donald Trump tried and failed to bring an impeachment action against Wisconsin’s chief election official to the floor of the Assembly, GOP leaders called the effort “grifting.”

The rift between party leaders and a small bloc of Assembly Republicans who authored a resolution to oust the Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe later reemerged during Thursday’s Assembly session, with one member of the bloc calling for the resignation of Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Petersen, R-Waupaca.

On Tuesday, Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls – a promoter of debunked conspiracy theories claiming that widespread election fraud cost Trump the 2020 election – rose repeatedly during standard Assembly business in an attempt to move forward a resolution to impeach Wolfe.

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She was ruled out of order and not recognized for the rest of the afternoon. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, called her efforts “a big show for the cameras.”

The resolution, which has six Republican co-authors, does not have enough support to move forward through a standard process, August added.

“If she has the support to move the resolution forward, she can do so. But the fact is, she doesn’t,” he said. “Our caucus is focused on real things, not grifting.”

Later, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, a co-author of the resolution, criticized Petersen – who presides over Assembly proceedings and maintains rules and decorum – for failing to recognize Brandtjen.

“We, the members of this body and the people of Wisconsin, deserve an apology and a commitment from you that an incident of this nature will not happen again,” he said, “In the event that you are unwilling or unable to apologize and make said commitment then I ask for your immediate resignation as Speaker Pro Tem.”

Petersen fired back that Brandtjen had not followed proper protocol.

“A member working with groups posting for days on social media to attend an Assembly session so that that member can then harass other members in the chambers because they are ineffective passing their bills through the normal process is not decorum,” he said. “As long as I’m in the chair, this will not be tolerated.”

Several longtime deniers of the outcome of the 2020 election had indicated in advance of Tuesday’s session that Brandtjen would attempt to use an unusual procedure on the floor to move the resolution forward. The group has claimed Wolfe promoted illegal voting that aided in Trump’s narrow loss to President Joe Biden in 2020.

Wolfe has said those claims “willfully distort the truth,” and Wisconsin’s election results – in which Biden bested Trump by about 21,000 votes – have withstood numerous partisan and nonpartisan audits and legal challenges.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, initiated one of those audits, the pricey investigation by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman that ultimately turned up no evidence of widespread fraud.

Vos later canceled the investigation and called Gableman an “embarrassment.” He subsequently faced backlash from some Trump supporters in his district, who mounted a primary challenge for his Assembly seat in 2022. They came within just a few hundred votes of succeeding. Brandtjen backed Vos’ opponent and was later removed from a leadership position chairing the Assembly Elections Committee.

Last week, some of those same critics launched an effort to recall Vos from his Assembly seat.

The fight over Wolfe’s tenure in office dates back to the summer, when Democrats supported her staying in office after her term expired, and Republicans attempted to oust her via a confirmation process.

Attorney General Josh Kaul filed suit calling that process illegal. Last week, Dane County Circuit Judge Ann Peacock ruled Wolfe is lawfully in her seat.

Meanwhile, Vos has said that, while he doesn’t back Wolfe remaining in office, he’s uninterested in pursuing an impeachment effort.