Fear and Loathing in Dane County
Once a month, the local Republican Party of Dane County, Wisconsin gathers for an evening event called “Pints and Politics.” Tonight’s gathering is taking place on a June night at a small public park with a pavilion in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, one of several cities besides Madison in the heavily Democratic county. Some years back I was banned from the group’s events for having written an accurate public account of one of them, but all has since been forgiven, and now I am as welcome as anyone.
Tonight’s lineup of speakers features seven candidates, including state representative and gubernatorial contender Tim Ramthun, who will be speaking last. The event organizer is Rolf Lindgren, a local libertarian of my long acquaintance. We talk soon after I arrive. He calls Donald Trump “the most libertarian president we’ve had . . . ever”: He got rid of the reviled Section 215. (“Remember Michael Moore yelling about the Patriot Act?”) He didn’t start any new wars. He presided over a large drop in the number of federal prisoners. He banned the shackling of pregnant women in prison. And so on. Lindgren’s priorities speak well of him.
About 50 people mill about, and even though they were invited to bring or cook food, hardly anyone is eating—or even drinking, which is unusual in Wisconsin. Scott Grabins, the local party chair, starts things off at 6 p.m.
“We have an opportunity here,” he tells the gathering. “We have that . . . red wave coming. All you have to do is go down to the gas station.” Rim shot, please.
Grabins is one of the ten Wisconsin Republicans who met in secret on Dec. 14, 2020—after Trump lost Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes—to sign an official-looking document purporting to declare Trump the winner on the authority of the state’s Republican electors. (At the same time—in the same state capitol building—the state’s real electors were holding an official ceremony to authorize the state’s votes for Biden.) Republicans attempted the ruse in several states with the goal of giving Vice President Mike Pence an excuse to throw the election to Trump, which he declined to do. Two of Wisconsin’s actual electors recently filed suit against the pretend ones in the hope that doing so would prevent the losing side from attempting to subvert election outcomes in this manner in the future.
Notwithstanding the pending lawsuit against him, Grabins is jazzed tonight about the role that local Republicans will play in key races. “Dane County has the third-largest number of Republicans in the state of Wisconsin,” he says. “We will determine who the next governor is, who the next attorney general is, who the state treasurer is, the secretary of state. We will determine whether Senator [Ron] Johnson goes back to the Senate.”
He might be right. While Dane County is heavily Democratic—in the 2020 election, Joe Biden beat Trump 77 percent to 22 percent—the level of enthusiasm that the people at this gathering can bring to bear on behalf of Republican candidates in the August 9 primary could prove pivotal in the November election.
Another speaker, candidate for state treasurer John Leiber, notes that the upcoming elections represent the GOP’s best chance in half a century to clinch total control of Wisconsin state government—not just both houses of the legislature, but the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, and secretary of state. It’s a distinct possibility.
In fact, what happens in this fall’s elections in Wisconsin could sway the outcome of the next presidential election, should Republicans regain the governor’s office and seize control of the state’s electoral apparatus. That is their stated intent. All anyone has to do is listen.
Early in the program, Lindgren points out to the audience me and journalist Dylan Brogan, playfully reminding everyone present that whatever they say might “end up in the news.”
The speakers are not noticeably inhibited.
Andrew McKinney, a candidate for state assembly and Sun Prairie School District employee, explains that Democrats “conned” him into running as a Democrat in a previous race and have since made him keep his mouth shut. No more: McKinney shares that when the HR director at a nonprofit he worked for pressed him to give his “pronouns,” the ones he gave her were “motherfucker” and “motherfuckers.”
Another speaker—Matt Sande, legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin—calls the likely repeal of Roe v. Wade “a great first step,” adding that his group will then work to remove the exception for saving the life of the mother from the 1849 Wisconsin anti-abortion law that could go back into effect if Roe is overturned. “This is a spiritual battle,” he says, urging people to “just pray they stick to this [leaked draft] Alito decision.”
Secretary of state candidate Jay Schroeder, who came close to beating the longtime incumbent, Democrat Doug La Follette, in 2018 and is now one of three Republicans vying for the chance to oppose him in November, tells the gathering that the person holding this office “has to sign a sheet of paper” to certify the state’s electors in the presidential election. Had he had this power in 2020, “I would not have signed it.” (It’s not clear whether this would make the document invalid. La Follette, who signed it in 2020, tells me in an email that he doesn’t know.)
But the night’s most extraordinary speaker on the issue of election security is Jefferson E. Davis, chair of an “ad hoc committee on voter integrity.” Davis directs his attention to me and fellow reporter Brogan, hoping to end up in the news. He points to his car, a black Saab parked on the street. “That car,” he announces, “is full of receipts and data” that he would share afterward with the two of us to show “how the election was stolen in Wisconsin.”
“If you think Joe Biden won the state of Wisconsin by 20,682 votes, if you think he’s the sitting president . . . then I’m the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers,” he tells the gathering. Davis is not the Packers’ starting quarterback.
While a smooth speaker with plenty of ready-to-hand figures and percentages, Davis doesn’t have much in the way of evidence to share with the larger group. He claims that Democrats visited tens of thousands of nursing home residents on election day to “steal as many of their votes, their dignity, and their identity as possible.” They also connived to send out as many absentee-ballot request forms as they could, even to people who didn’t ask to receive them. “They’re gonna do it again in 2022,” he warns.
Davis is immediately followed by Orville Seymer, a longtime conservative activist, who circulates a handout outlining an exciting new idea for Republican electoral success: Make a list of people you know, look up their voting history on the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s website, and request that they be sent absentee ballot request forms; then swoop in to do everything for them except sign it. “You’ve just doubled your vote, and you’ve done it completely legally,” he notes, correctly.
At last, the floor goes to the candidate Lindgren introduces as “Radical Tim Ramthun.” Ramthun gives a long, rambling talk that rotates like an elliptical around an idea he puts this way: “When election integrity doesn’t happen, and nefarious acts and illegal acts result in [the] wrong people being in seats, you’ve got problems like we have now in our society. It’s a big deal.”
Ramthun is vying for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination against former Lieutenant Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and businessmen Kevin Nicholson and Tim Michels. He tells the group he spoke with Trump for “seven minutes and 45 seconds” in December (“He said, ‘You’re my kind of guy.’”) and again at Mar-a-Lago in April, after which he heard from others that he would be getting Trump’s nod. Instead, in May, Trump endorsed Michels. Ramthun is still scratching his head: “I heard Reince Preibus was involved. Money’s probably involved.”
Ramthun also recounts his clashes with Robin Vos, the Republican who is speaker of the Wisconsin assembly. At Trump’s instigation, Vos launched a probe into the 2020 election result that had already survived a recount and a state supreme court ruling. The probe that has thus far cost taxpayers nearly $900,000 and uncovered no fraud—except the unsupportable claims made by those conducting it. After Ramthun falsely accused Republicans of signing a pact with Hillary Clinton to authorize voting dropboxes, Vos stripped him of his sole staff member. Radical Tim assures the gathering that he is undaunted.
“People continue just to tell me, ‘Well, Tim, you’re a conspiracy theorist’ or ‘It’s not constitutional.’ The only word that comes to mind for me is ignorance.” The facts, he says, continue to pour out: “You can’t dispute the data. The geospatial ping data qualifies [as] fact. Period.”
Ramthun at one point refers to “the Democrat-orchestrated riot that happened on January 6th”—“Yes, I said it that way; write that down,” he notes to me and Brogan—but he doesn’t elaborate on the claim. So, at the end of his talk, I raise my hand and ask Ramthun to explain what he meant. Here is what he says:
In my opinion, I am aware of seven states that were coming to that certification event on January 6th to object to it. It is my opinion that Democrat leadership knew of that and did not want the objection to happen. The seven states were the swing states, including Nevada and New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. So the reason I said it is because the plan is clear: They were going to object to the certification on January 6th on the floor, and every state was going to have to vote independent. It was going to string it out and be a big deal and it was going to be chaotic for the side that wanted it done—they wanted to rubber stamp it, they didn’t want that, so let’s cause a deflection. Let’s create something, and we’ll just make it happen automatic and no one will know better, because they’ll be focused on the other thing that happened—which, by the way, worked very well. My opinion.
Who needs congressional hearings when you can have the events of January 6th explained as clearly as this?
By the way, at no point during the event does anyone concerned about election integrity mention Grabins’s participation in an actual plot to subvert the 2020 election result.
As the event concludes, Jefferson Davis tries to follow through on his offer to show me and Brogan the “receipts” and other evidence he’s keeping in his Saab that the state’s 2020 election was stolen. It’s late, the Brewers are playing, and I’m hungry—as is everyone else who came to this cookout but didn’t eat, I imagine—so I leave. Later, Brogan texts a photo of Davis with some of the papers and offers this disappointing report: “guy talked to me for 40 mins, pulled out a bunch of binders with spreadsheets but finally admitted nothing he showed was proof, but that’s coming.”
I can hardly wait.