After making headlines across Minnesota and Wisconsin, the chair of the St. Croix County Republican Party has resigned after posting incendiary and militaristic language on the local party office's official homepage.
"We reject the language used and have taken down the website," the statement says. "While we remain committed to forthright discussion of political ideas and differences, that discussion must be within the confines of civil discourse, without the perception of intimidation, accusation or threats."
It added: "We oppose violence as a method to achieve political goals. We will continue to actively support the goals of the Republican Party and communicate them in a civil manner."
Until recently, the website looked typical for a local political office, online archives show.
"Welcome to the St. Croix Republican Party," it read in late November, followed by stating "limited government, lower taxes, less spending and individual liberty" as the group's political values.
Sometime between Nov. 27 and Jan. 7, that greeting was altered to "If you want peace, prepare for war," which in recent years has been tied to alt-right and white supremacist movements, appearing in blogs and clothing.
In white font against a black background, the rest of the message used militaristic language, encouraging people to "mercilessly fight" for the party and "eliminate leftist tyrants" from local offices. Some parts of the website were deleted altogether.
After the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's column sparked denouncements of the website from the Republican and Democratic parties is Wisconsin, as well as St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson, who wrote in a post to the Sheriff's Office Facebook page that he was "shocked and disheartened by the tone of the message."
"We’re trying to get things moving in the right direction," said former county board and state Assembly candidate Ryan Sherley, who serves as secretary for the local party. "I would say that had the entire board known what was going on with the website ... it would have been done differently."
Kraft defended the language to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying "no press is bad press" in a story published last Monday. He has not responded to requests for comment.
Kraft has also publicly posted incendiary statements on his personal page, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Kraft has not responded to multiple requests for comment
Board members weigh in
A recent investigation from the New York Times shows that support for President Donald Trump runs strong at local levels of government across the country, even as prominent national Republican politicians have broken ties with Trump since his election loss and the subsequent insurrection at the Capitol.
"The falsehoods, white nationalism and baseless conspiracy theories he peddled for four years have become ingrained at the grass-roots level of the party, embraced by activists, local leaders and elected officials," the story reads.
Last week, former deputy chair of the Minnesota state Republican party Michael Brodkorb published an opinion piece in the Minnesota Reformer calling for the Republican party to "expel these extremist elements from their ranks."
Dan Myers, who oversees the St. Croix County Democrats, told Bring Me The News last week that he thought the Kraft's website update only represented fringe beliefs, rather than standard republican values.
"It speaks for the violent, hate-filled rhetoric of the Trumpists. These are the extremists. They’re not the general, run-of-the-mill, Republican conservatives," Myers said.
"I think that’s correct," said St. Croix County Board Supervisor Bob Feidler, who is listed as a board member for the St. Croix County Republican Party. "To be blunt, people here are very nice people. They are very thoughtful, and courteous, and this was an anomaly that happened ... We don't talk that way as a norm. We might say we disagree ... but we don't talk in the sharp language that might have been used (on the website)."
But when it comes to "Trumpism," Feidler and Sherley differed from Myers' analysis. Both St. Croix Republican Party board members said that support for Trump has not been a divisive factor within the local Republican party.
"Support for Trump in St. Croix County, at least on the Republican level, is very unifying," Sherley said. He added that the party does not promote the falsehood that election fraud kept Donald Trump from being re-elected. Under Kraft's leadership, the Facebook page was used to promote the president's lie as recently as mid-December.
"It’s so difficult to define Trumpism. I think some people who dislike President Trump would define it in a way that would seem quite ornery and dark, and capable of things that we normally don't associate with the president. But others think it reflects the fine values, the traditional values of Americans," Feidler said.
St. Croix County Board Supervisor Cathy Leaf told Bring Me The News last week that the rhetoric used by Kraft mirrored that of protesters against masks at public comment this past fall. Board members supporting a mask requirement in public spaces have been called "enemies of the people" and "domestic terrorists."
The St. Croix County Republican Party was among political groups like Activated Patriots and Citizens for the St. Croix Valley encouraging residents on social media to speak against the proposed ordinance at the meetings.
“I take all of that very seriously given the environment we’re all in,” Leaf said. “What is irritating and what I don’t think John Kraft realizes what he’s done — words matter."
"There are people who say, oh, they won’t do that. It’s the rational part of our brain that says they won’t do it — but they did," she added, referring to the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol led by Trump supporters.
Feidler said he didn't see a tie between Kraft's rhetoric and the language from anti-mask protesters, adding that "lively" county board meetings are not "abnormal."
"There maybe one or two occasions that the chairman had to remind people to not voice their opinion loudly," he said. "That happens in so many meetings."