How much sway does Donald Trump still have on Racine County? Not enough to ensure his preferred candidates win every time, even in contests where Democrats stand little chance.
The Journal Times’ No. 10 story of 2022 was the crazy election in western Racine County where former President Donald Trump made the extraordinary move of endorsing a state-level local candidate, there was a whole bunch of mudslinging and there were three men running for one seat in which only one of their names appeared on the ballot.
The election carried the chance of upheaval in state politics. Instead, the status quo has remained. Robin Vos, one of the state’s most effective conservative legislators in history, remains the representative for Assembly District 63. But it wasn’t without the toughest battle of his political life.
The big picture
The foundation for this tale was laid in late 2020 after Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, even though all the evidence known then and presented since has shown that Biden won legitimately, including by more than 20,000 votes in Wisconsin.
As Trump refused to give up on those claims, there became a model conservative candidates base their platforms on: distrust in American electoral systems. Adam Steen became one of those candidates.
An engineer laid off from his job amid COVID-19 lockdowns who had unsuccessfully run for public office before, Steen made national headlines not only for challenging the de facto leader of Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers, but also for hardline fundamentalist statements like how he believes all contraception should be illegal and associated with Christian nationalism.
Trump endorsed Steen because Vos — who had gone so far as to travel to Alabama in August 2021 and pose on Trump’s plane for a photo with the former president to curry favor and calm Trump’s vocal concerns — had refused to support Trump’s unconstitutional efforts to overturn his loss in 2020.
Vos, a Rochester resident who is the longest-serving Assembly speaker ever, and other Wisconsin Republican leaders remain committed to changing the state’s election laws to address as what they see as “vulnerabilities” to fraud, but they have been unable to because of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto pen.
Conservatives who back Trump have latched onto this as supposed evidence that the Republican establishment is complicit in allowing election fraud that has allowed Democrats to win — even though there is no evidence of any real increases in fraudulent voting having gone up by any discernable amount.
The Steen v. Vos election also appears to have played a role in bringing to an end the pricey investigation of the 2020 election that Vos ordered. At a cost of more than $1 million, Vos tasked former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman with reviewing the 2020 election. Gableman didn’t uncover anything substantial about the election and spread misinformation, leading Vos to call the man he hired “an embarrassment to the state” days after Gableman joined Trump in endorsing Steen.
Days after Steen was beaten in an Aug. 9 primary, Vos fired Gableman.
So, what happened with the election?
Vos unsurprisingly sought reelection to the Assembly seat he has held since 2005.
Trump, with increasing frequency throughout 2022, criticized Vos and other Wisconsin Republicans for not falling in lockstep with him on election law, the Constitution and his baseless claims of victory in 2020.
Steen, in a rare move, challenged his conservative counterpart. He got support from election deniers and opened his campaign in April by claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Within a month, the race started getting heated when Vos was allowed to march in Rochester’s Memorial Day Parade but Steen wasn’t.
Throughout the summer leading up to the Aug. 9 primary, Trump kept the heat turned on, threatening to endorse Steen over Vos because Vos didn’t back Trump’s desire to have his loss overturned. Vos stood his ground, saying doing so would be unconstitutional.
“The single thing that Donald Trump is obsessed with is the 2020 election. I have been consistent for a year, saying we constitutionally cannot decertify the election. Now, when people are threatened by someone who has a loud microphone” — referring to Trump — “a lot of times they buckle, right? I am proud that I have stood for what I believe in and what I know to be true in the face of withering criticism from President Trump. Now, he hasn’t criticized me for the fact that we’ve cut taxes or that I’m pro-life or that I’ve worked harder than most people for his election in 2020. He just wants me to do something I cannot do,” Vos told The Journal Times in July. “You can’t just undo an election.”
Steen throughout the campaign, including at a Trump rally in Waukesha a week before the primary election, called Vos “a treasonous traitor” and claimed Vos wasn’t truly “pro-life” because Vos supports limited exceptions to Wisconsin’s abortion ban in cases of rape, incest and if the woman’s life is in danger.
Republican voters sided with Vos, but it was close: 5,084 votes to 4,824 in the Aug. 9 partisan primary.
Steen didn’t give up. Within two weeks, he launched a write-in campaign.
Throughout all this, the Democratic Party had been criticized by its own supporters for not having a horse in the race. Vos was vulnerable and the Republican ticket was split, but the other American party didn’t have anyone on the ballot.
Democrat Joel Jacobsen of Burlington announced he was running as a write-in three weeks after Steen said he wasn’t suspending his campaign, but Jacobsen didn’t have the kind of financial backing he’d gathered in the two prior election cycles in which he ran against (and lost to) Vos.
When all the ballots were counted following the Nov. 8 election, Vos had one of his biggest margins of victory ever. He received 16,977 votes; Jacobsen received 3,490 write-ins and Steen got only 2,095.
While Trump remains a political force, this election shows that — at least in Racine County — his influence can be overcome.
Steen says launching effigies of his election opponent into a field with a slingshot is all in good fun
Watch now: Adam Steen’s Campaign’s ‘toss Vos’ event
Harder than it looks
Steen about to toss
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