As campaign season picks up, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos under attack from liberals and conservatives

Vos is the subject of a new attack ad from a liberal group and is fighting another recall attempt from conservatives

Assembly Speaker Vos leans forward to shake hands with Gov. Evers.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, right, shakes hands with Gov. Tony Evers before the State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has spent this year fighting attempts by some conservatives to recall him from office. Now, a liberal group is attacking him for for being a “roadblock” for Democratic ideas.

The “Wisconsin Initiative” ad buy blames Vos, R-Rochester, for stopping policies like paid family leave and Medicaid expansion. It’s being run in districts where Democrats hope to compete under the state’s new legislative map.

Meanwhile, the recall effort — which Vos has challenged as having collected too few legitimate signatures — comes from backers of former President Donald Trump, who are critical of Vos’ handling of the 2020 election and its aftermath.

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Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School Poll, said Democrats’ distaste for the powerful Assembly Speaker is to be expected.

“What is striking … is that he has become this object of division within the Republican Party, which has raised his visibility considerably,” Franklin said.

According to Franklin’s research, Vos’ unfavorability has increased over time as his visibility has grown. In 2019, just 6 percent of Wisconsin Republicans held an unfavorable view of Vos while 21 percent held a favorable view. That meant most Republicans said they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion about him, Franklin said.

In the most recent polling, however, about half of Republicans had opinions about Vos, with the largest growth among voters who viewed him unfavorably.

“When you see how that started to move after the 2020 election, when the unfavorable views doubled for Vos between late 2019 and early 2022, I think you have to say that the Trump disagreements and the fight over the 2020 election …has to be tied to these changes in views of Vos among Republicans,” Franklin said.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, in which Trump narrowly lost Wisconsin to President Joe Biden, Vos hired former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Mike Gableman to look into the state results. That investigation, which cost millions, turned up no evidence of widespread fraud. Vos has since denounced the effort and said he thinks Gableman should be disbarred.

Gableman has since joined forces with the speaker’s critics. In 2022, he recorded an ad for Adam Steen, Vos’ Republican primary opponent who came within a few hundred votes of defeating the speaker. This year, Gableman is working as an attorney for the group trying to recall Vos.

Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speaks outside the Wisconsin Elections Commission offices in Madison in support of an effort to recall Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Recall organizer Matthew Snorek (left) said organizers turned in more than 9,000 signatures.
Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speaks outside the Wisconsin Elections Commission offices in Madison in support of an effort to recall Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Recall organizer Matthew Snorek, left, said organizers turned in more than 9,000 signatures. Shawn Johnson/WPR

It remains unclear whether Vos will face a recall election, but it appears he’ll avoid an organized primary challenger in August. His only Republican opponent lasted less than two weeks in the race, and dropped out earlier this week.

While that party faction persists, Democrats have been consistent in their opposition to Vos, Franklin said. Marquette’s polling has shown more Democrats than Republicans hold opinions about Vos.

“So there’s been this consistent pattern that, for Democrats, Vos is a little bit more visible object of their opposition,” Franklin said.

The liberal ad buy comes at a time when Democrats are hoping to undermine Vos’ longstanding grip on power in the Assembly. With the arrival of new legislative maps that are less favorable to Republicans, the Wisconsin Initiative campaign is targeting 10 competitive Assembly districts.

The power of the Speaker’s office — and of the figure that Vos cuts within liberal political circles — was on display at last weekend’s state Democratic party convention, when Vos received some personal shout-outs.

“This year, after years in a democracy desert, parched by the heat of an unforgiving Robin Vos-shaped sun, we are reaching the oasis,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said, to applause.

A liberal group called “The Wisconsin Initiative” is running ads in competitive Assembly districts calling Assembly Speaker Robin Vos a “roadblock” to Democratic policies. Screengrab from YouTube

Vos has, at times, seemed to relish fighting on both fronts. Earlier this year, he called those trying to recall him “whack jobs” and “morons.”

“They … probably made me way stronger than I was six months ago,” Vos said.

The speaker also predicted that, despite more competitive maps, Republicans would retain a majority in the Assembly, arguing the GOP was simply better than Democrats at recruiting candidates that fit their districts.

“I’m pretty confident,” Vos said.