Will Robin Vos Save Democracy?

Here’s my take on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. He’s not an ideologue, but a survivor. He stays in power by finding the center of gravity in his Republican caucus and putting himself there. 

And he’s been phenomenally successful. He is the longest-serving speaker in Wisconsin history and he is easily the second — some might say the first — most powerful person in Wisconsin government. 

One of my hobbies is to beat the bejesus out of him at every opportunity. It’s not like the guy doesn’t deserve it. The font of Vos’ power is the rigged legislative district maps that he has engineered so brazenly. Republicans consistently win about half the votes in statewide races or in cumulative votes for Assembly candidates, sometimes just a little more. And yet, Vos has set things up so that he has an impenetrable majority in the Assembly. Republicans currently hold 61 of 99 seats and there is no reason to believe that that margin will be reduced in November. 

As a result of that, the normal check on unrestrained power, which is based on the idea that whatever you do to the other folks when you’re in the majority can be done to you when the tables are turned, is no longer in play. When there’s almost no chance that you’ll be in the minority for at least the next decade, you can simply ignore public opinion. 

But Vos’ curse is that this same dynamic empowers and enlarges the craziest part of his own caucus. When the only thing most of his members have to fear is a primary challenge from their right, they’re inclined to move in that direction to stave off potential opposition. 

My view is that in his soul — assuming he has one — Vos is a traditional Republican conservative. He’s for smaller government and lower taxes, he’s pro-business and for more personal freedom, all of that old Republican line. But he also likes power. And to stay in it he needs to maintain the support of the lunatic wing of his party. 

So far Robin Vos has resisted the craziest demands from the unhinged wing of his caucus. But it’s likely to only get worse.

And here’s where I start to feel some sympathy for the devil. The biggest thing on the hard-right these days is election denial. In order to maintain your bona fides you have to pander to those who believe that the 2020 election was stolen. In the face of voluminous evidence to the contrary you have to pretend to believe that Donald Trump actually beat Joe Biden in Wisconsin. And, by the way, you need to also perform the neat trick of pretending to believe that while also maintaining that your own election — on the same ballot — was valid. 

So, Vos, who clearly knows the election was not stolen, has been doing what he can to keep the election deniers at bay without placing his own speakership in danger. That’s why he hired former Justice Michael Gableman to perform his sham “investigation” into the election. That turned out to be a strategic mistake as Gableman went off on his own insane crusade and Vos quickly lost control of him and of the narrative. In fact, as I documented in a piece last month, Vos tried several times to end Gableman’s show, only to be thwarted each time. He seems to have finally gotten the upper hand, at least temporarily, by putting the whole thing on pause while Gableman and Vos himself fight various legal challenges of their own making. 

And Vos has done two more things that, while not exactly profiles in courage, have at least shown a desire to not go too far. He has consistently resisted calls from Republican gubernatorial candidates and other members of his own party, including Sen. Ron Johnson, for the elimination of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and the transfer of power over elections to the secretary of state or to the Legislature. And he has said again and again that the Legislature has no power to decertify the 2020 results — something that Gableman, Assembly elections committee Chair Janel Brandtjen and Trump himself have called for. 

Last week there was even an indication that Vos, assuming he is reelected speaker in January, will sack Brandtjen as chair of that committee. Retiring Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), who is Brandtjen’s counterpart on the Senate elections committee, said that Brandtjen’s call for decertification was “lunacy” and that her reappointment as chair was “remote.” It’s not clear if Bernier’s conclusion was based on a conversation with Vos, but Vos did take action to strip Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), now also a gubernatorial candidate, of his staff after Ramthun pushed for a resolution calling for decertification. (Ramthun also criticized Vos directly, which probably had more to do with it.)

Now, it’s not like Vos has been pure on all this. Earlier this year he met with election deniers and then made the irresponsible and unsupportable statement that “we’ll never know” how much fraud there was in the last election. No, Mr. Speaker, we know exactly how much fraud there was. All of 24 charges of election fraud have been brought out of 3.3 million votes cast. 

But I read Vos’ comment as another example of his doing just barely enough to keep the election deniers at bay while he resists actions that would truly undermine the system. 

The real test for Vos may come, if he remains in office, in December 2024. By then it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will establish something called the “independent state legislatures doctrine.” That could mean that the Legislature really could certify electors regardless of the actual popular vote. So, if there is yet another close election won by a Democrat, there will almost certainly be pressure to simply declare the needed number of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate invalid for whatever bogus reason and award the state’s electoral votes to the Republican. 

If it comes to that, what will Vos do? Will he stand in the breach and protect American democracy or will he cave to the extremists? 

For all of my harsh criticism of Vos, I have to at least pay him the respect of concluding that I honestly don’t know what he would do in that circumstance. And, among the Land of Misfit Toys that is the Republican Party these days, that passes for a compliment. 

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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