Last year, Democrats spent millions of dollars elevating far-right candidates in Republican primary contests for governor and Congress — betting, it turned out correctly, that more extreme opponents would lose general elections.
Now Wisconsin Democrats are trying to do it again, this time with mail and TV ads before a Republican primary in a special election for a State Senate seat that carries ramifications far beyond the district in suburban Milwaukee.
The Democrats are helping a far-right election denier who has become a pariah within her party in her race against a less extreme, but still election-denying, conservative. They hope that with a more vulnerable opponent, Democrats can win a seat held for decades by Republicans and deny the G.O.P. a veto-proof majority in the gerrymandered chamber.
“Janel Brandtjen is as conservative as they come,” reads a postcard sent to Republican voters from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which calls her “a conservative pro-Trump Republican.”
The Feb. 21 primary, and the April 4 general election to follow, will serve as the latest test of how much appetite Republican voters have for the flavor of election denialism that fueled the party’s grass roots after former President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 election loss.
The twist in the Wisconsin race is that both leading Republican candidates took significant public steps to try to overturn Mr. Trump’s defeat. One of them, however, Ms. Brandtjen, a state representative from Menomonee Falls, has so alienated members of her own party that she was kicked out of the State Assembly’s Republican caucus, leaving Democrats giddy about the prospect of facing her in a special election for a battleground district.
“If Janel Brandtjen makes it through the primary, it’s going to allow people in Wisconsin to have a clear choice of what it is that they’re voting for in the election in April,” said Melissa Agard, the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate, who said the race would be more winnable for Democrats if Ms. Brandtjen, pronounced Bran-chen, triumphed in the primary.
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Some Republicans agree.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, the leading national organization that backs G.O.P. state legislative candidates, is broadcasting digital ads promoting State Representative Dan Knodl before the primary. And Country First, a political action committee started by former Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — who retired from Congress after voting to impeach Mr. Trump — has bought digital ads calling Ms. Brandtjen “an embarrassment.”
Like Ms. Brandtjen, Mr. Knodl was among the 91 state legislators from several states who signed a letter urging Vice President Mike Pence to reject the certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021. He shares Ms. Brandtjen’s vehement opposition to abortion rights.
Ms. Brandtjen, who said in December 2020 that there was “no doubt” Mr. Trump had won that year’s election in Wisconsin, became a favorite of the former president’s in 2021 after being appointed to lead the Wisconsin Assembly’s elections committee.
From that perch, she amplified a range of false claims about the 2020 election; invited conspiracy theorists to testify before the panel; sought to initiate an Arizona-style review of Wisconsin’s ballots; and appeared at rallies aiming to pressure her Republican colleagues to withdraw the state’s 2020 electoral votes — an impossible act under the U.S. Constitution. Mr. Trump praised her in his official statements and had her speak at a rally for midterm candidates he held in Wisconsin in August 2022.
But Ms. Brandtjen, a longtime figure in local conservative politics dating to her time two decades ago as a gadfly at Menomonee Falls village board meetings, did not fully draw the ire of her fellow Republicans until she endorsed the Trump-backed primary opponent of Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, who has been the state’s most powerful Republican official since 2019, when Democrats took over the governor’s office.
After Mr. Vos narrowly prevailed, he removed her as the elections committee chairwoman and organized his fellow Assembly Republicans to expel Ms. Brandtjen from the party’s caucus.
Asked Monday about his preference in the State Senate special election, Mr. Vos replied in a text message: “Lol. Let me quote Sarah Huckabee Sanders, ‘normal vs crazy.’ I would vote normal.”
A third Republican candidate in the race, Van Mobley, the president of the village of Thiensville, was among just a handful of Wisconsin elected officials who backed Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. He is far less known in the district than Ms. Brandtjen and Mr. Knodl, a bar owner from Germantown. None of the three Republican candidates responded to messages.
The Democratic candidate, Jodi Habush Sinykin, a lawyer who is unopposed in her primary, is running television ads aimed at raising Ms. Brandtjen’s profile.
A parade of women in Ms. Habush Sinykin’s ads call Ms. Brandtjen “too conservative” and cite her opposition to abortion rights and her citation as “pro-life legislator of the year” from a Wisconsin organization that opposes abortion rights.
In all, Ms. Habush Sinykin has spent $166,000 on advertising, while neither Ms. Brandtjen nor Mr. Knodl has bought any television or digital ads, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.
Ms. Habush Sinykin declined a request to be interviewed about the campaign and her advertisements. Democratic polling of the race suggests that she could beat Ms. Brandtjen in a general election but would have a far tougher race against Mr. Knodl.
“We’re continuing to highlight Janel Brandtjen and how she would be a disaster in the State Senate,” said Joe Oslund, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “We’re going to continue to put her extremism front and center for voters.”
Wisconsin Republicans hold a 21-11 advantage in the State Senate after the state adopted new G.O.P.-drawn legislative maps ahead of the midterm elections. If a Republican wins the special election to the Senate, the party will hold a veto-proof majority and will have the votes to impeach Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, his appointees to state cabinet posts and state judges.
Like many once solidly Republican suburban areas, the district, which covers parts of four counties in Milwaukee’s northern and northwestern suburbs, has trended toward Democrats in recent years. Mr. Trump won the district by 12 percentage points in 2016, but that advantage narrowed to five points in 2020. In 2018, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, won the district by 20.5 points, but last year the G.O.P. nominee for governor, Tim Michels, carried it by just four points.
The seat opened up when Alberta Darling, a 78-year-old moderate Republican who was first elected in 1992, announced her retirement in November. Mr. Evers praised her as “a diligent leader who’s always carried herself with poise, class, and grace.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.