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2020 casts a long shadow over 2022 GOP primary, but could that hurt nominee in the fall?

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When given eight minutes to speak at the Republican Party of Marathon County’s Lincoln Day dinner earlier this month, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun led off with the primary talking point of his 2022 gubernatorial campaign: The 2020 election, which he said “is without question, the most important issue in this state.”

Multiple reviews, recounts and court decisions have found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, which saw President Joe Biden narrowly defeat incumbent Donald Trump in the state. Despite that, escalating rhetoric from the Republican field vying to unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this November continues to animate the Republican base.

“I can tell you that categorically, everywhere I go and the people I talk to say we’ve got to get resolution, we’ve got to get closure,” Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, said of the 2020 election in a video from the event posted online.

In addition to Ramthun, who has called for the legally impossible decertification of the 2020 election results, fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates — former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, construction business owner Tim Michels and former Marine Kevin Nicholson — have repeatedly taken aim at how the election was administered. Kleefisch has described the election as “rigged,” while Michels recently said the vote was “maybe” stolen.

Escalating skepticism of the election is fueled in part by pressure from Trump, who continues to push false unfounded claims of fraud and still holds considerable sway over the party nationwide. The former president has yet to formally endorse a candidate in the race, though his support could provide a major benefit in the packed Aug. 9 primary.

Trump has also pushed state Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to keep open the $676,000 taxpayer-funded review of the election, though last week Vos paused former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s probe and halved his monthly stipend.

Recent polling by the Marquette Law School finds that Republicans who are the most doubtful in the accuracy of the 2020 election are also the most enthused to vote this fall.

“If you’re a candidate for governor in a Republican primary, do you have to address it? Yeah, you do,” GOP strategist Brandon Scholz said. “Is it the driving, pervasive issue that is the be-all, end-all in the Republican primary? Not really.”

But while election skepticism could tip the scales among the state’s impassioned primary voters, the topic is less appealing to the larger makeup of general election voters, who are less enthusiastic about relitigating the 2020 election.

“This enthusiasm gap could help promote election skeptics in the primary, but it’s not inconceivable that it could hurt Republican turnout in November among those Republicans who don’t think the election was stolen,” Marquette Law School Poll Director Charles Franklin said.

Dale Schultz, a former Republican state Senate majority leader who has bucked his party on various issues in the past, said continued election denial among gubernatorial candidates could force some moderate Republicans to skip the November election altogether.

“I’m going to guess 10-15% of people are going to stay home or they’re not going to vote for these people,” Schultz said. “Is that enough to throw an election? You bet it is. And if we lose enough elections here, maybe the party officials will start to grow up and haul some of these kids out of the sandbox, hose them off and we can get back to doing what’s right for the people of the state.”

2020 to feature at 2022 convention

When delegates gather next weekend in Middleton for the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s state convention, the first vote they’re expected to take will be whether or not to allow a “no-endorsement” option on the ballot. The push for a no-endorsement option comes amid increasing criticism of establishment Republicans from a growing number of county parties and some statewide candidates, including Nicholson.

Many of the county parties seeking to eliminate the state party’s endorsement process are also the most vocal critics of the 2020 election, as well as how state Republicans, including Vos, have responded to their concerns.

Kleefisch, who launched her gubernatorial campaign last year and said months ago that Biden won the state, told WTAQ last month the election, which she described as “rigged,” was a topic that must be discussed by gubernatorial candidates.

“If you are unwilling to talk about this as a part of your campaign for governor of the great state of Wisconsin — you don’t address it on the very first day that you have the opportunity to address it, knowing that this is one of the biggest issues that Republicans are talking about right now, that is a problem,” Kleefisch said. “That is disqualifying.”

Kleefisch’s comments were aimed at Michels, who had joined the race days earlier. Michels did not discuss the 2020 election during a campaign launch event on April 25, but said in an interview earlier that day with WISN-AM that “a lot of people have questions about the last election. So do I.”

Speaking with WTAQ-AM on Monday, Michels went further on the topic, responding “maybe,” when asked by conservative host Joe Giganti if he thought the presidential election was stolen.

“Certainly, there was a lot of bad stuff that happened,” Michels said. “There was certainly illegal ballots. How many? I don’t know if Justice Gableman knows. I don’t know if anybody knows.”

On Thursday, Michels took another step closer to the Trump fringe, calling for a major overhaul of the state elections commission. That’s still not as far as Nicholson, Kleefisch and Ramthun, who have all proposed dismantling the agency entirely.

In a February column in conservative outlet Wisconsin Right Now, Nicholson criticized Kleefisch for questioning whether Trump had actually lost the 2020 election after previously saying Biden had won.

“This is a fundamentally unserious approach to a serious problem,” Nicholson wrote. “Joe Biden was declared the victor of a messy, improperly conducted 2020 election in Wisconsin — and we cannot allow another election like 2020 to take place.”

Ramthun’s comments have garnered him endorsements from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election led a voting machine company to file a defamation lawsuit against him, and former Trump adviser Michael Flynn. More recently, Ramthun announced at a campaign event last month that lawyer and former Trump campaign strategic adviser Boris Epshteyn, who has pushed the former president’s baseless voter fraud claims, had joined his team as a campaign consultant.

Epshteyn was part of the GOP effort to hand Electoral College votes in several states including Wisconsin to Trump. He has been subpoenaed by the U.S. House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“While it’s no surprise that Tim Ramthun hired the person who organized fraudulent electors for Donald Trump, every single candidate running for governor believes the conspiracy that the Wisconsin election was rigged,” Hannah Menchhoff, rapid response director with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in an email. “All four candidates will continue to push each other farther to the right because they know it’s their best shot at a Donald Trump endorsement.”

Trump has met with several of Wisconsin’s GOP gubernatorial candidates and praised Ramthun’s efforts to decertify the 2020 election, according to Rolling Stone.

By contrast, Evers has been a vocal critic of the ongoing skepticism by Republicans over the 2020 election and has vetoed multiple bills passed by the GOP-led Legislature seeking to place more restrictions on election administration, drop boxes and absentee ballots.

“Every single Republican running for governor has staked out the most extreme position on these issues, promising to sign bills that would limit voting rights,” Evers’ campaign spokesperson Kayla Anderson said in an email. “Gov. Evers’ stance is clear: he will stop any bill that makes it harder for Wisconsinites to vote or undermines our democratic institutions.”

A winning strategy?

Marquette Law School polls conducted in October 2021 and February and April of this year found that nearly two-thirds of combined Republican respondents reported being “not too” or “not at all” confident in the accuracy of votes cast in the 2020 presidential election.

Republican-leaning independents were almost evenly split on the question, while the majority of true independents, Democratic-leaning independents and Democratic respondents said they were largely confident in the election’s accuracy.

“Every politician that wants to win has to pay attention to where their party is and either reflect those views of the most intense party voters or have a really good explanation for not doing what they want, if that would work at all,” Franklin said.

At the same time, voter enthusiasm, which Franklin said is a strong predictor of turnout, is higher among Republicans who say they are not at all confident in the results of the 2020 presidential election. Among Republicans who are very confident in the 2020 election, 46% say they are very enthusiastic about the upcoming election, but enthusiasm increases to 52% among those somewhat confident, 61% among those not too confident and 69% among those not at all confident in the previous election.

“Election skepticism is a strong issue for a Republican candidate in the primary, but looks like an uphill battle when speaking to the November electorate as a whole,” Franklin said.

Dane County Republican Party chair Scott Grabins downplayed concerns that differing views among Republicans over the 2020 election have created fissures within the party. He said voters are already motivated by a multitude of issues facing the state, including inflation, education, public safety and the price of fuel and goods.

“I think there is a lot of agreement on the notion that there were all these irregularities in the election and we’d like to see them addressed,” Grabins said. “At the same time, no matter where you are on that spectrum, we’re unified on the challenge that’s in front of us.”

The 2020 election is over. Here’s what happened (and what didn’t)

The 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which coordinates the nation’s election infrastructure.

While a handful of voters risked going to prison by attempting to vote twice or in the name of a dead relative, as happens in any election, no evidence of widespread fraud has ever been produced in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

Yet, many continue to question some of the practices clerks relied on to encourage eligible voters to cast ballots and make sure their votes were counted amid the first election in more than 100 years held during a pandemic.

The Wisconsin State Journal has covered every twist and turn of this debate in scores of stories. But here are a few that offered some broader context about what happened, and didn't happen, in the election of 2020.

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The clear insinuation was that someone not qualified to conduct an election improperly influenced these vulnerable voters. But the Wisconsin State Journal could not confirm the data. 

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The state has multiple, overlapping safeguards aimed at preventing ineligible voters from casting ballots, tampering with the ballots or altering vote totals.

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Nothing in the emails suggests there were problems with the election that contributed in any meaningful way to Trump's 20,682-vote loss to Joe Biden.

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"Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure," Sen. Rob Cowles said Friday.

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The grants were provided to every Wisconsin municipality that asked for them, and in the amounts they asked for. 

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"Application of the U.S. Department of Justice guidance among the clerks in Wisconsin is not uniform," the memo says.

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YORKVILLE — The Racine County Sheriff’s Office announced in a Thursday morning news conference that it has identified eight cases of what it believes to be election fraud at a Mount Pleasant nursing home.

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The memo states that state law gives the Audit Bureau complete access to all records during an audit investigation and federal law and guidance does not prohibit an election official from handing over election records.

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Drop boxes were used throughout Wisconsin, including in areas where Trump won the vast majority of counties.

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"I don't think that you instill confidence in a process by kind of blindly assuming there's nothing to see here," WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said.

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The report is the latest to show that there was not widespread fraud in Wisconsin.

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The turnout at nursing homes in Brown, Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine counties in 2020 was not much different from the turnout in 2016.

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