When the Will County Board decided to send four of its members to the National Association of Counties’ legislative conference in Washington this past February, the contingent included new Republican board member Daniel Butler of Frankfort.

The taxpayer-funded trip for the conference, which featured panels on federal policy headlined by a speech from President Joe Biden, wasn’t Butler’s first time to the nation’s capital.

Little more than two years earlier, prior to being elected to office, Butler was in Washington attending then-President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally. Butler joined the march to the U.S. Capitol but he was not charged and he said he did not enter the building as insurgents staged a deadly insurrection in a failed attempt to stop the counting of Electoral College votes that made Biden the nation’s president.

Displaying a long history on social media of propagating elaborate and widely debunked conspiracy theories — ranging from pandemic vaccines linked with computer chip technology to a QAnon-backed tale contending Italian satellites were used in 2020 to switch votes from Trump to Biden — Butler won a seat on the Will County Board on Nov. 8.

Butler’s election was assisted by more than $3,300 worth of campaign mailings paid by the Illinois Republican Party, campaign records show. The Illinois GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

Butler, a Republican precinct committeeman who owns a general contractor business, a martial arts studio and a cabinet distributorship, also chairs the conservative Lincoln-Way Area Freedom Coalition. He listed his campaign priorities as “freedom of speech, 2nd Amendment, Constitutionalist, Fiscal conservatism and Right to Life.”

He won the second of two seats in the newly drawn 3rd County Board district with 9,623 votes, representing Frankfort, Crete, Monee, Park Forest, Steger and University Park.

Even after his election, Butler expressed fears about the security of mail-in ballots being counted post-Election Day, telling a right-wing, faux newspaper publication, “I’d like to think that after they get this count done, that I won’t lose.”

Butler, 58, was one of at least 57 people across the country who were involved in events at the U.S. Capitol that day and who later campaigned for elected office, according to a count by Politico.

Butler said he still has doubts that Biden’s vote total in defeating Trump exceeded that of President Barack Obama and said he recalls hearing that “some satellite in Rome that the Vatican has” was used to switch votes from Trump to Biden and “they traced stuff that went to a server in Germany.”

“There was all kinds of stuff that was out there, you know? At this point, who knows? You know, who really knows?” he said in an interview with the Tribune. “It’s over. It’s happened. We just gotta get more votes the next time. But nobody knows for sure, right? It’s all speculation.”

Butler, who said he is “100%” behind Trump for election in 2024, terms the criminal indictments facing the former president as political efforts by Democrats to try to keep “a negative image” of Trump “fresh in people’s minds before the election.”

Butler isn’t alone among Republicans who continue to distrust the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Results of a CNN poll conducted in July show nearly 7 in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they believe Biden’s win was illegitimate despite no evidence of widespread fraud and the rejection of nearly 60 lawsuits by Trump and his allies seeking to contest the election results.

Overall, 61% of Americans think Biden was the legitimate victor, the CNN poll found.

But Butler’s victory speaks to a larger political issue as Will County — part of what once were the solidly Republican collar counties that served as a firewall to Democratic Cook County votes — now finds itself at a partisan political tipping point as one of the last battlegrounds for the region’s GOP.

The fourth-largest county by population in Illinois, Will County voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Its county executive and other countywide officials are Democrats and 20 of the 28 state representatives and senators who represent all or part of the county are Democrats.

But the 22-member Will County Board, two members for each of 11 districts, is evenly split. A Democrat was absent during organizing, giving a Republican the leadership title of speaker of the board, though Democrat County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant can cast a tiebreaking vote on legislation.

As changing demographics have moved the other collar counties toward Democrats, Will County’s once-lush rural acreage has made an accelerated turn toward massive housing developments. That, in turn, has eroded and isolated conservatives to the County Board, where they represent islands of rural pockets.

Some longtime local Republicans think that Will County has already become a lost cause for the GOP.

“It’s certainly trending (Democratic) and I see nothing happening that’s going to stop that trend,” said Roger Claar, the former longtime mayor of Bolingbrook, who previously sat on the Illinois Republican State Central Committee. “The right wing has penetrated the party throughout the state, and certainly we’re not an exception in Will County.”

Claar, who was a Trump supporter, said he thinks the county’s shift to Democrats will only accelerate as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and send decisions on legalizing abortion to the individual states.

Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar, left, talks with colleagues as election judges count absentee ballots in the hotly contested race for mayor of Bolingbrook on April 18, 2017, at the Will County Government Center in Joliet.

“We’ve got all these right-wingers running around trying to pass laws making abortion illegal and that just fuels the fire. And we all get painted with the same brush,” said Claar, who thinks the GOP should modify its platform and allow abortions with conditions, such as through a certain duration of pregnancy. The issue of abortion, he said, puts Democrats in a dominant position with voters for at least the next decade.

Former Illinois House GOP leader Jim Durkin, who previously represented parts of the county said, “There’s some pretty high-spirited Republicans in Will County that trend extremely conservative, but it doesn’t match up and it doesn’t play in a general election.”

State Rep. Jim Durkin listens on Dec. 12, 2022 during an Illinois House committee hearing at the Bilandic Building about new gun legislation.

“The conservative movement has been rejected. We saw that with the governor’s race, which spilled over into the legislative races,” said Durkin, who stepped down from the legislature believing that right-wing 2022 GOP governor nominee Darren Bailey sank the chances of lower-ballot Republican candidates.

“At some point, we have to take a pragmatic approach toward these elections in that you can be a Republican but also have a moderating voice in this process, and that’s what people are looking for. But if you’re an extremist and you go along with (Trump) and you start talking about, you know, ‘the big steal,’ it’s not going to work in areas like Will County,” he said.

Durkin said Republicans “who don’t have a hellbent attitude and conservative principles leave and never come back,” meaning the party is left with mostly far-right voters to decide the party’s nominees.

And a lot of times these people who are nominated don’t stand a chance to win in a general election,” Durkin said.

Jacqueline Traynere, a County Board member since 2008 and the leader of Democrats on the board, said geography and salary are among the reasons voters in districts elected candidates such as Butler and Steve Balich, a onetime Tea Party activist who is Homer Township chair and head of the GOP caucus on the County Board.

“The County Board position pays $23,000 a year and yet you have to be available for … meetings during the day,” she said. “And if you own your own business and do your own thing, that is great” or “you’re retired.”

Traynere, who represents the county’s more heavily populated areas of Bolingbrook and Naperville, also said in the eastern and southern parts of the county represented by Balich and Butler “Republicans far outweigh the Democrats in terms of population and they’re the kind of Republicans that, you know, you’ve got to pass the MAGA (Make America Great Again) test,” referring to Trump’s slogan.

On the County Board, Traynere acknowledged sometimes “politics makes for strange bedfellows and strange coalitions,” such as her working with Butler in an attempt to preserve the county’s old courthouse from demolition.

“You support somebody who agrees with you. Just because he’s a Republican, and he’s a Trumper or a MAGA guy, he’s on the board, he has a position, he has a vote,” she said. “The electorate sent him, we got to work with him.”

While Butler was not yet a member of the County Board when Jan. 6 occurred, a Will County Board member at the time attended the rally that day.

Debbie Kraulidis of Plainfield opted not to run for reelection as a County Board member in 2022 after facing criticism over attending the event. In a Facebook video at the Jan. 6 event, she said she was “making sure that only legal votes were counted.” Kraulidis is now a vice president of Moms for America, a conservative group attempting to influence school board elections and policy.

In an interview, Butler said he traveled to the “Stop the Steal” rally with others to “lend their voices so that the legislative branch could hear that there was people supporting the objection to the votes” of the states’ electors. But the system he described for objections was contrary to federal law and the states’ submissions were all properly certified.

“I don’t think anybody was looking to stop it. You know, they were just looking to let everybody know how they felt so that you could do the right thing,” he said, adding then-Vice President Mike Pence “kind of handled it poorly,” though he was constitutionally bound to accept the count despite Trump’s pressure to have him act illegally to toss out votes.

Butler said he “was all the way in the back” of the march to the Capitol and was unaware of the deadly riot and break-in until he returned to his hotel and, the next morning, met up with others.

He said he was told by an attendee he met that law enforcement officers at the Capitol had smoke bombs and tear gas and were “mocking” protesters by “pretending like they were bowling” with the canisters.

“What he (the attendee) said was that people were being provoked,” Butler said, adding that he thought antifa groups also instigated the rioting. Trump supporters have often without evidence blamed militant anti-fascist groups for instigating the breach on the Capitol.

“We weren’t here to break into that building and didn’t cause any damage,” said Butler, who maintained that everything he saw on Jan. 6 was “peaceful.”

Butler said he traveled to the rally with a friend, David Wiersma. Eight months later, Wiersma pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of entering the Capitol during the riot and entering a senator’s office and was sentenced to 18 months of probation and 100 hours of community service.

Butler said Wiersma told him he went in “because the doors were open, the police seemed friendly and there was no opposition” to entering.

Butler was not charged. But in Facebook posts from January 2021, he posted several pictures from the National Mall, where people marched from Trump’s speech to the Capitol. He also posted pictures labeled “at the Capitol building” and saying “I met some good people.”

In one collection of pictures from the march, Butler posted: “Just a few peeps getting together to save the world.”

Three days after the chaos that erupted at the Capitol, Butler reposted a video featuring debunked conspiracy theorist and Trump defender Mike Lindell expressing confidence that “Trump will be your president again for the next four years” and contending his vote total “broke the algorithms” of the counting machines.

Butler said he was motivated to run for office in Will County because of dissatisfaction over the redrawing of County Board district boundaries. His campaign website solicits contributions but does not have the state-required disclaimer for donations.

As for serving on the County Board, Butler said he thinks it is a body that isn’t interested in partisanship.

“I like the fact that when we get in there, it’s not gonna be a battle between, you know, Republicans and Democrats, and it’s just a battle of trying to do the right thing,” he said.

And when the county sent him to Washington last February, did he attend Biden’s keynote speech?

“I didn’t,” he said. “For the first time I went into the Capitol Building and it was pretty cool. You know, there’s just a lot of history there. And so, you know, it was very informative, and you get a little emotional when you see all this stuff and the Constitution out and all the different history that went into it.”