GOP hopes of retaking the key gubernatorial seat in the swing state Wisconsin this year appear to have long been pinned on former TV news anchor Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as the obvious heir to former Gov. Scott Walker for eight years. , and vowed to continue his ultra-conservative policies. Then a wealthy construction company owner jumped in, poured his $12 million into the campaign, and won Donald Trump’s backing.
Now Tim Michels is in a tight race with Kleefisch, who will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November in Tuesday’s primary.
The race is part of a deepening proxy battle between Trump and his estranged former Vice President Mike Pence, who backed Kleefisch. It could ultimately have ramifications in 2024, when Trump has floated the possibility of running for the White House again and signaled his willingness to pressure elected officials, including in Wisconsin, to overturn the election result.
Michels focused on shaping an outsider candidate — with Trump’s backing — while Kleefisch embraced her establishment support as a way to prove she was a more credible Republican candidate.
Both Kleefisch and Michels questioned President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory over Trump in Wisconsin — an outcome that has withstood recounts, lawsuits and scrutiny — but neither accepted Trump’s demands to cancel them pressure.
Kleefisch called the 2020 election “rigged” but said she would not consider decertification because “it is constitutionally impossible.” Michels initially called cancelling Biden’s 2020 victory in Wisconsin “not a priority,” before saying “everything will be on the table.”
Both Michels and Kleefisch want to abolish the bipartisan commission that currently conducts elections in the state.
A third Republican gubernatorial candidate, state Rep. Tim Ramthun, has repeatedly called for decertification to be at the center of his long-running campaign.
Biden’s victory in Wisconsin has withstood two partial recounts, numerous lawsuits, a nonpartisan audit and scrutiny by a conservative law firm. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said decertification is out of the question.
Kleefisch has the support not only of Pence, but of her former boss, Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Republican leaders of the legislature, 56 lawmakers, the state chamber of commerce, the Tavern League and the state Most county sheriffs support.
“I’m the one that’s been tested and proven and ready to go,” Kleefisch said after Pence touted her Wednesday at a suburban Milwaukee site. “I’m a four-time winner across the state.”
Michels claims he is “not a politician” but has been a behind-the-scenes power figure for decades, having previously run for U.S. Senate in 2004, losing to the then-senator. Russ Fingold. He has been a regular donor to Republicans, including Walker and Klee Fisher.
“People want an outsider, people want a veteran, people want a businessman,” Michels said during the candidate debate.
Wisconsin is the third state where Pence and Trump face off in the gubernatorial race, underscoring deep divisions over the future of the Republican Party. In Georgia, Pence-backed Gov. Brian Kemp is more than 50 percentage points ahead of Trump’s pick, former Senator David Perdue. In Arizona’s gubernatorial primary, it’s too early to run Thursday’s race between Trump-backed former TV news anchor Cary Lake and Pence-backed businesswoman Carlin Taylor Robson.
The area that attracted Pence and Kleefisch on Wednesday is the heartland of Republican Wisconsin and home to key voters in suburban Milwaukee who could decide the fall election. This is also the home ground of Kleefisch. Trump, whose approval ratings in the region have dipped from 2016 to 2020, plans to rally for Michels on Friday, just three miles from where Pence came for Kleefisch.
“There is no more capable, experienced, or conservative candidate for governor in America than Rebecca Kleefisch,” Pence said of Kleefisch, without mentioning Trump or Michelle.
Kleefisch, a former Milwaukee TV news anchor and teen beauty contestant, entered politics in 2010 and won five primaries for lieutenant governor. After Evers beat Walker in 2018, Kleefisch started laying the groundwork for his running.
She reminded Republicans of her struggle with Walker, when Walker’s proposal effectively ended collective bargaining, leading to mass protests in 2011 that ultimately failed to bring him and Kleefisch back to office. During this cycle, she has focused on issues such as creating a fixed income tax, expanding school choice programs and increasing investment in law enforcement.
Michels, who co-owns the state’s largest construction firm, Michels & Co., with his brother, has spent nearly $1 million a week since entering the competition. Although he used Trump’s endorsement as evidence of his outsider status, he also had the backing of Wisconsin’s ultimate Republican political insider — four-term former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who briefly flirted with his own campaign.
Michels sometimes stumbles.
When asked this week if he would support Trump in 2024, he looked bewildered, first refusing and then 24 hours later saying he would support Trump for the presidency. In an earlier debate, he appeared to have no idea what DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a highly controversial immigration program) stands for. He was criticized between 2015 and 2020 for buying $30 million worth of properties in New York and Connecticut and traveling between Wisconsin and the East Coast, where his children attended and graduated from high school.
Michels’ positions on the boards of various transportation-related industry groups give him a stomach ache, and Kleefisch has tried to link him to those groups’ past support for raising the state’s gasoline tax. Michels said he opposed the increase.
He’s also running ads taking a strong anti-immigration stance, even as he leads the board of a transportation group that opposed an anti-immigration bill that would prevent companies that hire “illegal aliens” from getting state contracts.
While Republicans battle, Evers has raised more than $11 million this year and has cast himself as the only one opposed to Republicans who want to overhaul elections in the 2024 presidential race and maintain a state that banned abortion in 1849 law. Both Kleefisch and Michels support the ban and the law, which Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaur challenged in court.
“I have a great track record,” Evers said, highlighting the state’s 2.8 percent unemployment rate, increased funding for public schools, expanded rural broadband access, emphasis on road repairs and a 15 percent income tax cut . “Let them take it.”