MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican Party is launching a nine-city “election integrity” tour hitting battleground Wisconsin's most liberal cities, events that feature a conservative former state Supreme Court justice and that come less than two months before the state's August primary.
The events, which kick off Wednesday in La Crosse where there is an open U.S. House seat and the state's famously liberal capital city of Madison, are drawing blowback from those who say the round tables are intended to spread lies about what happened during the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden and to mislead voters ahead of November's midterm election.
Republican organizers say the events are part of the GOP's effort in battleground states to connect staff and volunteers, and to recruit poll workers, observers and voting deputies. The effort in Wisconsin is a continuation of the Republican election integrity operation that’s focused on 16 states, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, said RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn.
“We just think getting more citizens involved is a good thing,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “The more eyes on elections is a good thing."
Wisconsin is a key presidential battleground state that Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016 and then lost by nearly the same margin in 2020. Supporters of Trump, who has repeatedly said the election was stolen but not produced evidence to prove it, have pushed to overturn Biden's win in Wisconsin, dismantle the state's bipartisan elections commission and enact a host of election law changes.
Republicans who control the Legislature have tried to pass a series of bills that would have made it more difficult to vote absentee in the state, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed all of them. Evers and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, are up for reelection in November.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos also hired another former state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to investigate the 2020 election. His reports have been panned by Democrats and Republicans alike, and there has been no evidence found to date to overturn Biden's win over Trump. That victory has withstood recounts in two counties, multiple state and federal lawsuits, a nonpartisan audit and a review by a conservative law firm.
The upcoming round tables are billed as a chance to join with the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and others to “ learn more about the party’s efforts to ensure 2022 is the year of fair, open, and honest elections in Wisconsin.” The events are closed to the press.
Kelly referred questions to the Republican National Committee. He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker but lost in his run for a full term in 2020 to liberal Jill Karofsky. Kelly is considering running for an open seat next year and is expected to announce his decision this summer.
Liberal groups and others are organizing against the Republican events and planned to protest before the the round table on Wednesday in Madison. Other planned stops for the tour include Wausau, Green Bay, Appleton, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, of Beloit, decried it as a “conspiracy theory roadshow.”
Matt Rothschild, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign which tracks spending on elections, said Republican attempts to overturn the 2020 election, their focus on doing away with the state’s bipartisan elections commission and their passage of bills making it harder to vote shows they don’t care about election integrity.
“It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious,” he said.
Angela Lang, director of the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, called continued Republican efforts to contest the 2020 election “one big, giant distraction.”
“I don’t know how many times we need to litigate or talk about how Trump did lose the 2020 election," she said Tuesday. “You can’t litigate your way out of that, you can’t roundtable your way out of that, and anything that they’re doing is just a feeble hope at trying to continue the conversation.”
But Jefferson, the state GOP executive director, said the effort is about educating potential volunteers about what is and isn't legal at the polls, and finding ways for them to get involved. He discounted the criticism.
“We've been dealing with pushback from the Democrats on election integrity for decades,” he said. “The idea that election integrity came to the surface in 2020 is absurd.”
Associated Press writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report. He is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HarmVenhuizen.
Scott Bauer, The Associated Press