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High-profile endorsements light up GOP gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin

Voters will chose from three candidates in the Aug. 9 primary. The winner will take on Gov. Tony Evers in November.

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Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch announces her campaign for governor Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, at Western States Envelope Company in Butler.
Angela Major / WPR
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MADISON — After months of actively campaigning to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this fall, the premise that former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch would be the de facto frontrunner in the GOP gubernatorial primary hit a snag with Tim Michels' late entry into the race.

A little over a month later, Michels, the millionaire co-owner of Brownsville-based construction company Michels Corp., received a bombshell endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who still holds considerable sway over Wisconsin Republicans. A month later, he followed up with an endorsement from former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who had previously been considering his own potential run for governor.

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Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels answers questions from attendees during a campaign stop Tuesday, July 12, in Oconto.
Angela Major / WPR

What's more, Kleefisch fell about 5 percentage points short of securing an endorsement from the Republican Party of Wisconsin at its annual state convention in May as delegates grappled with the choice between a candidate with strong ties to established Republicans and a self-proclaimed political outsider. Support for all other candidates, including Michels, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, who continues to call for the constitutionally impossible task of decertifying the 2020 presidential election, and business consultant Kevin Nicholson, who has since dropped out of the race, was in the single digits.

Facing an apparent surge from her primary rival, Kleefisch last week announced her own key endorsements from former Vice President Mike Pence — a once close ally to Trump who, like the former president, is mulling his own 2024 prospects — and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a fierce rival turned close ally of Trump's who won the state's 2016 presidential primary.

She's also been backed by former Gov. Scott Walker, who Kleefisch served under for eight years, and more than 50 Republican state lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg.

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"What's Trump's endorsement worth? It's kind of hard to quantify in the Republican Party. I think you'd certainly rather have it than not," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball. "And these endorsements from other folks are probably less meaningful, although the combination of Walker and Pence and other folks are probably a signal to the traditional Republicans that Kleefisch is the person to go to."

Trump and Pence have thrown their support behind competing gubernatorial candidates in other states as well, including in Arizona and Georgia, where Pence-backed Gov. Brian Kemp ultimately defeated Trump's chosen candidate, David Perdue.

Tim Ramthun
Tim Ramthun attends a debate for republican governor candidates Monday, June 27, at Providence Academy in Green Bay.
Angela Major / WPR

Michels and Kleefisch were leading the race, separated by 1 percentage point, in recent statewide polling. Ramthun, who has been endorsed by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and business owner Adam Fischer are also running in the Aug. 9 primary. Ramthun polled more than 20 points behind Michels and Kleefisch in June. Fischer was not included in the poll.

The winner of the primary will go on to face incumbent Evers on Nov. 8 in a high-stakes midterm election for both parties that could dramatically shape Wisconsin policy over the next four years.

Evers, who is seeking a second term this fall, has maintained the role of goalie over the last several years, vetoing more than 100 bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature, including GOP-authored bills to limit abortions and alter state election processes — measures his Republican gubernatorial challengers have said they likely would sign if elected.

"This is not a normal election," said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. "Normally there's a difference of opinion between Democrats and Republicans across a set of issues ... but it's not about whether we should be a democracy or whether people should have these basic rights or freedoms. This time the Republican Party has jumped way out into the extreme fringe."

Republicans, who have shown to be more enthusiastic to vote in the upcoming election than their Democratic counterparts, according to recent polling, have said pocketbook issues such as the gas tax and inflation will play the biggest role in the primary and general election.

"The candidates ... especially the Michels' team, are jumping out there with endorsements, saying, 'Look, this is a proven track record. We've got endorsements,'" Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Mark Jefferson said. "I think it helps a little bit. I think what helps more is engaging the public."

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Here's where the candidates stand on the issues:

Abortion

All three leading candidates said they support the the state's 173-year-old abortion ban, which prohibits abortions from the time of conception unless it's necessary to save the mother's life.

Michels said he supports contraception, including emergency forms like the pill known as Plan B. He said he would also boost counseling and other resources for women with unplanned pregnancies.

Kleefisch said she wants to "enforce the laws we have on the books and defend the sanctity of life while providing resources to moms." She also said Plan B and other contraception options "will not be illegal when I am governor of the state of Wisconsin" and said at a recent debate that "miscarriage care and ectopic pregnancy treatment are not abortion."

Ramthun said he would work to provide additional resources to pregnancy crisis centers across the state and speed up the adoption process for women with unplanned pregnancies.

2020 election

Ramthun continues to push for the legally and constitutionally impossible task of decertifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Kleefisch has said the 2020 election was "rigged," but said she will not make decertification a priority.

While he has said the 2020 election was "maybe" stolen, Michels said decertifying the results of the 2020 election is "not a priority" if he's elected governor. Michels has been endorsed by Trump, who continues to make unfounded claims of widespread election fraud.

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A recount, court decisions and multiple reviews have affirmed that President Joe Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes.

Elections Commission

Ramthun has called for dismantling the state's bipartisan elections commission and putting electoral duties under the Secretary of State's Office, which does not currently oversee elections.

Kleefisch has also proposed abolishing the state agency and creating a new office within the state Department of Justice to oversee elections and investigate instances of voter fraud.

Michels' plan would drastically alter the Wisconsin Elections Commission, but stops short of abolishing the agency. Instead, Michels has said he would call the Legislature into a special session on his first day as governor to vote to remove the agency's six commissioners. He would also terminate all senior staff at the agency and require them to reapply under the newly appointed commission.

Speaking in a WISN-AM debate Wednesday, July 27, Michels said he would replace the commission with an agency with appointees from each of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts.

"That is to me what seems to be fair and if people have a problem with that representative on the new, whatever the replacement is — WEC 2.0 board — they can go to their congressman," Michels said. "There's much more direct representation there."

Michels did not specify if members of congress would appoint the commissioners. Five of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts are held by Republicans. The current commission is evenly split between three Democratic and three Republican appointees.

Jobs, economy

Michels has called for reducing corporate and individual income taxes and recruiting out-of-state veterans to boost the workforce, increasing energy production, eliminating the personal property tax and increased spending on vocational-technical training programs.

Kleefisch's plan calls for eliminating the personal property tax on businesses, increasing apprenticeship and dual enrollment opportunities, restrictions on unemployment benefits and boosted talent attraction and energy production.

Speaking during a recent debate hosted by TMJ4, Ramthun said he would prohibit mask and vaccine mandates, enhance education and reduce taxes to address state labor shortage challenges.

Ramthun has suggested eliminating the property tax levy that funds the state's public school system, as well as the state income tax, while Michels said he would review every state department for "fraud and abuse" and seek cuts or the elimination of agencies. Kleefisch has proposed moving the state to a 3.54% flat tax as the first step toward eventually eliminating the state income tax.

Education

Michels, Kleefisch and Ramthun have all supported measures prohibiting instruction about systemic racism, known broadly as "critical race theory," and systemic sexism instruction.

They also support universal school vouchers, breaking up the Milwaukee Public Schools district and the creation of a "Parental Bill of Rights," to allow parents to sue a school district or school official if they don't allow parents to determine the names and pronouns used for the child while at school, review instructional materials and outlines used by the child's school and access any education-related information regarding the child, among other measures.

Crime

Michels proposes creating increased mandatory minimum penalties for felons found in possession of a firearm, replacing Green Bay's prison with a larger, modern facility, bail reform and incentivizing the hiring of more police officers. He also supports measures to reduce state funding to communities that seek to reduce police funding.

Kleefisch has campaigned on her pledge to hire at least 1,000 police officers using part of the state's projected budget surplus. She has also proposed mandatory minimum bail for violent offenders and increased penalties for those who resist arrest, reckless driving and assault of a police officer.

Michels and Kleefisch have also said they would fire Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, whose office recommended bail at just $1,000 for Darrell Brooks Jr. Prosecutors say Brooks drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, a Republican stronghold, just days after he was released in November. Six people died and dozens more were injured.

Ramthun has also said he "backs the blue" and has proposed increased penalties for offenders with less options for judges to reduce bail.

Paid family leave

All three Republicans spoke in favor of paid family leave, though they did not provide details on what specific measures they would pursue, in a recent debate. Democratic state lawmakers have proposed providing tax-funded payments to workers, while Republicans have made other proposals, including shifting Social Security payments.

Previous efforts to pass paid family leave by Democrats have failed to gain traction in the Republican-led Legislature.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

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