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Top Wisconsin GOP leaders have no Democratic opposition in 2022, but plenty from their own party, and an ex-president

The Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader each face primary challenges, and Donald Trump has endorsed one upstart candidate.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, left, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu face primary challenges this year.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

Democrats are not running candidates this year against the two most powerful Republicans in the state.

But each politician — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMaheiu — is facing challenges from within their own party.

It’s a result of the current state of Wisconsin politics, and of course, former President Donald Trump, who has now endorsed one of the challengers.

Wisconsin’s political districts are gerrymandered not only in favor of Republicans, but also to create safe districts for incumbents, said Ed Miller, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-Stevens Point. This gives Democratic challengers little chance of winning, and thus little motivation of running.

But the intraparty competition within the GOP reflects the split between vocal Trump supporters and those who are less so, Miller continued. Wisconsin’s legislative leaders, especially Vos, have irritated Trump by not pushing to decertify the 2020 presidential election, a fantasy that is not even possible under the state’s constitution, according to legal experts, including Republican attorneys.

Vos, from Whitewater, is facing a primary challenge from Adam Steen, who Trump officially endorsed Tuesday night, calling him a “rising patriotic candidate.” LeMaheiu, from Oostburg, must fend off two candidates. Vos did not respond to messages seeking comment, and LeMahieu declined to comment through a staffer.

Steen has streamed video on social media of several “debates” which Vos, in a move common for incumbents favored to win and with little to gain, has not attended.

“I have decided to run for this seat because our current representative has stopped listening to the people of this district,” Steen wrote in an email to The Badger Project. “I have taken time to get to know many of the constituents in greater Racine County and they are very upset with the representation they are receiving.”

In his email, Steen also made negative claims against “liberals” without providing evidence.

Steen has raised about $44,000, including about $7,500 of his own money, according to campaign finance records.

Vos has raised more than $200,000 this election cycle, with donations from big business like 3M, Charter, Home Depot, Pfizer and Walgreens.

Last week, Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social that he is considering endorsing Vos’ opponent “because anyone would be better” than Vos.

A Trump endorsement has already had an effect in Wisconsin. The former president threw his support behind Tim Michels in June, pushing the Republican gubernatorial candidate to the top of the pack.

So far, Trump has not involved himself in the Senate Majority Leader’s race. Two women are challenging LeMahieu, who was first elected to the state Senate in 2014 and was narrowly elected to lead the Republican majority and therefore the entire body last year. LeMahieu has raised nearly $400,000 in this election cycle, with donations from big business like AT&T, Charter Communications, Liberty Mutual, Microsoft and Walmart.

Jeanette Deschene, 37, of Manitowoc, said she felt personally felt underrepresented over the past two years in an email to The Badger Project.

“This is something that has been echoed throughout the community,” she continued. “I’m also discouraged by some statements (LeMahieu has) made about needing a Republican governor to resolve issues. While I am a Republican, I understand the need to have both conservatives and progressives in office and wholeheartedly believe we can find common ground regardless of which political party holds the governor’s seat or house majority.”

Deschene has raised less than $700, according to campaign finance reports.

Ruth Villareal, 41, of Sheboygan is a nurse who said she lost her job when she refused to submit to Covid testing in 2020. She has not reported raising any money for her campaign to the state.

Villareal said she’s running against all of the Covid orders and mandates and criticizes LeMaheiu for not pushing back strongly enough against them. LeMaheiu did put statements out denouncing orders from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, calling them things like “constitutionally suspect” and an “overreach.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down orders from Evers requiring mask wearing in public places, residents staying at home and limiting the size of gatherings, but also ruled that local public health officials can unilaterally issue orders to slow the spread of disease. Justice Brian Hagedorn provided the decisive vote each time on the evenly split court.

Vos did not have a Republican challenger in 2018 or 2020. In the general elections those years, he earned 61% and 58% of the vote, respectively, to easily beat Democratic candidates.

LeMahieu did not face a Republican or Democratic challenger in his last election in 2018.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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