Endorsement Wars in Wisconsin

COLUMBUS, Wisconsin—It’s a scene worthy of a postcard: Under bright blue skies and fluffy clouds, Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful Rebecca Kleefisch, 46, steps out onto the back balcony of a gray two-story farmhouse and grabs a mic. 

The balcony is draped in red, white, and blue bunting flags and just below it, about 60 potential Republican primary voters have gathered for a candidate forum. A slope in front of the group bristles with political signs for a number of Republican candidates.

“Are you ready to win again?” Kleefisch asks the group, and she is greeted with applause. One supporter roars out a particularly enthusiastic “YEAH!” (Later, Nate Pollnow, a Kleefisch supporter, tells me that having a booming tone comes with the territory of his occasional gig as an auctioneer.)

“God bless you so much for what you have done, Dodge and Columbia County,” Kleefisch says, all smiles. “I love you guys—I’m coming down there!” 

But just out of frame, there is tension. The swing state has become the latest in the Republican Party proxy wars, with former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence supporting different candidates. And Kleefisch’s opponent, Tim Michels, is still in attendance.

Michels, who received Trump’s endorsement, stops glad-handing with people on the lawn and loads into an SUV out front as Kleefisch begins her remarks. Kleefisch’s team had been careful not to arrive at the candidate forum until Michels had finished his speech, just minutes before.

The two are neck-and-neck in a competitive Republican primary to see who will square up against incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November. Voters head to the polls Tuesday.

The field narrowed last month when Republican Kevin Nicholson dropped out. State Rep. Tim Ramthun is still in the race, though he’s lagged as a distant third in state polling. The state party chose not to endorse after no candidate got 60 percent of the votes at the state convention.

At first Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor to Scott Walker from 2011 to 2019, was the frontrunner. She announced in September 2021 and quickly secured a laundry list of endorsements from establishment Republicans—including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos—as well the approval of local law enforcement groups and heavyweights in the business community. The business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce endorsed Kleefisch in January.

But then came Michels. He entered the race relatively late, in April. But lots of cash—and a coveted Trump endorsement in June—helped him catch up and then narrowly pass Kleefisch. Michels, 59, who runs Michels Corporation with his brothers, dropped more than $8 million of his own money to blitz the airwaves with advertisements.

Kleefisch is not putting her own money into the race. She’s raised about $3.7 million from donations and spent around $3.5 million in the first half of the year.

In June, Marquette Law University found that Michels is the preferred candidate for 27 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Kleefisch is shy by one point: 26 percent of voters support her. Ramthun had 3 percent support and Nicholson, who was still in the race at that point, garnered 10 percent. Though the share of undecideds had fallen by 14 points since April, 32 percent of Republican primary voters remained undecided.

Vice President Mike Pence threw his support behind Kleefisch in June, countering Trump’s endorsement of Michels. The candidates are also splitting endorsements from important Wisconsin politicos. 

Tommy Thompson, who is the state’s longest serving governor and a Republican who carved out a reputation for bipartisan leadership, endorsed Michels. Scott Walker, perhaps unsurprisingly, endorsed his former ticketmate.

Kleefisch has been quick to trumpet the Walker endorsement, and he’s appeared in TV advertisements boosting her as well. She’s also been endorsed by Ted Cruz—who in 2016 won Wisconsin’s GOP presidential primary over Trump.

Leaning into the Pence endorsement may be more of a gamble. Since making a break with Trump, the former vice president has also fallen out of favor with some of the Republican Party faithful in the state.

Just a few miles down the road from the candidate forum, a Trump/Pence flag hangs from a silo next to a red barn. The lower half of the flag—with Pence’s name—was ripped to nearly illegible tatters. The upper half, sporting Trump’s name, was pristine.

But with just days to go till the primary, Kleefisch appeared alongside Pence and Walker in a roundtable discussion with law enforcement Wednesday in Pewaukee.

“When Rebecca asked if I would come in and campaign for her in the waning days of this primary, I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat,” Pence said, according to WisPolitics. “There is no candidate for governor in America who is more capable, more experienced, or a more proven conservative than Rebecca Kleefisch.”

Meanwhile, Trump will descend on the state for a rally today with Michels. 

It’s unclear why Trump snubbed Kleefisch. Kleefisch, Michels, and Rathmun all made trips to Mar-A-Lago—and Trump reportedly flirted with the idea of endorsing Ramthun at one time.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Trump came across a picture Kleefisch posted of her daughter going to a homecoming dance with the son of state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn. Hagedorn is a conservative justice who sided with the court’s liberals against Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results in the state in 2020. Kleefisch seems to think this is what doomed her for the endorsement—she brought up the photo at a candidate forum saying that “as a mom, that is something that I have no words for.”

But endorsements aren’t everything, particularly when it comes to finicky swing state politics.

And while Michels has certainly benefited from some parallels to Trump, he’s not made Trumpism his whole appeal. Michels’ message to voters centers around his status as a businessman, U.S. Army veteran, and a political outsider. He’s also not as brand new to politics as his advertisements suggest: He first ran for state Senate in 1998, losing to now-U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2004, he ran for U.S. Senate and won the GOP primary. But former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold beat him by 11 points.

“Michels is only a political outsider because he always loses,” a Republican operative close to the race told The Dispatch.

But Michels’ framing of the race with him as a political outsider and Kleefisch as the establishment candidate has taken root with some voters. 

Ozaukee resident John Irato, an undecided voter, told The Dispatch that, “My major concern is, do I want someone who is from the establishment in the establishment, or do I want someone who is an outsider and doing it for no other reason than to make a change?”

Irato liked Scott Walker, but that hasn’t given Kleefisch a winning edge for him: “[Kleefisch] was lieutenant governor before—is that a good thing? I’m not sure.” He added: “But I think you saw how someone from the outside can be. And I think the swamp is terrible.”

Over the weekend, Irato was manning a booth for his window covering business at the Washington County Fair. The day before, he’d had a chance to meet and talk with Michels. He moved a Michels sign out of sight behind the table when Kleefisch’s team came by the next day. “I didn’t want them to feel bad,” he said.

He was collegial to Kleefischwhen she came up to shake his hand and introduce herself. At the end of their conversation, Irato advised: “When you get in there, kick some people out. Clean it up—clean it up.”

“We will,” Kleefisch promised.

Kleefisch has leaned on her experience during the Walker administration to argue she is best suited for governing. 

“The best indicator of what you will do in the future is what you have done in the past,” she reminded voters at Saturday’s candidate forum. She ticked off actions taken during the Walker-Kleefisch administration, starting with the passage of Act 10, which limited the power of public sector unions. (Later Republicans would also limit the power of private-sector unions.)* She also cited cutting taxes, keeping state funding from Planned Parenthood, expanding the private voucher school program, and requiring photo identification for voting.

As for her priorities if elected, she’s listed education, election administration, the economy, and cutting down on crime.

In an interview with reporters at the Washington County Fair, Kleefisch downplayed the impact of Trump’s endorsement in the race: “Wisconsin voters have always had a very independent streak,” she said. “We make our decisions based on relationships and based on the individual, based on policies. Wisconsin voters are exceptionally smart. They do their homework. And that’s what they’re doing in this race.”

“I’m the only one prepared to do this job,” Kleefisch said. “I just am the only one prepared to do this job. In the nicest way possible.”

One issue likely to play into this election is how voters feel about the last one.

Many Republicans in the state are skeptical of the results of the 2020 election: Marquette Law School’s June poll found that 65 percent of GOP respondents said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” in the election results. While all the candidates have made “election integrity” a top priority, only Ramthun, who introduced legislation to decertify the results of the 2020 election, has made election fraud the central focus of his campaign. He’s earned an endorsement from conspiracy theorist and pillow salesman Mike Lindell along the way.

At the first GOP candidate governor’s debate in July, Ramthun continued to promise he would decertify the election results: “I’m surprised I’m the only one.” Michels and Kleefisch both focused on making changes to election administration going forward, but did not say they would seek to decertify Joe Biden’s win. 

Michels has said that he would seek to rework election administration in the state, including abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC.)

The WEC, created during the Walker-Kleefisch administration, came under fire from Republicans due to policies it approved during the last election. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission mailed voters absentee ballots and expanded the use of ballot drop boxes, among other changes.

Kleefisch has also said she would replace the WEC and hand more control over election administration to the secretary of state’s office.

The state’s legislative attorneys said last year that it is legally impossible to decertify the results. The Legislative Audit Bureau found no irregularities in an October 2021 report, though they issued recommendations for improving election administration to bolster confidence in future elections.

When asked by the moderator if they would take action to decertify the 2020 election, only Kleefisch gave a flat “no.” She added: “It’s not constitutionally possible.”

Michels took a more vague route: “I will look at all the evidence and everything will be on the table and I’ll make the right decision.”

Ramthun said he would sign legislation to decertify the election “the nanosecond it hit my desk.”

As Michels has closed the gap in polling, the Kleefisch campaign has gone on the offensive: Walker recorded an ad accusing Michels of opposing a law known as right-to-work, which passed in 2015 and banned unions from requiring mandatory dues at private businesses. The Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, a group that the Michels Corporation had membership in, opposed the proposal. 

Michels has fired some shots of his own, usually comments about how change is needed from the “career politicians” and “the usual politicians.” The comments are often directed explicitly at Gov. Evers and President Joe Biden, as opposed to mentioning Kleefisch by name.

But voters can read between the lines.

“I am tired of the usual politicians running things, and that’s why we have the problems that we have today,” Michels told the crowd Saturday. 

That message has also been boosted by outside groups—the National Club for Growth dropped 1.3 million in anti-Kleefisch advertising, knocking her for “building her career in politics.”

After the candidate forum, Michels told The Dispatch in a brief interview that he “couldn’t be happier with the meteoric rise that we’ve had, and the momentum just continues.”

He added: “There’s a big void that my candidacy is filling. People see a guy that was born and raised in a little farm town in Dodge County. They see someone who spent 12 years in the infantry in the army, and then someone who worked in construction. So there’s nothing fancy about that. I know how to put on boots—army boots, steel toe boots—and get things done. That’s why we’re surging.”

*Correction, August 5: This piece initially misdescribed Act 10 as applying to private sector unions.

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