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MADISON, Erase. (UKTN) — Republican hopes of regaining a crucial governor seat in swing-state Wisconsin this year appeared to rest with Rebecca Kleefisch, a former TV news anchor who spent eight years as the heir apparent to former Governor Scott Walker and pledged to pursue a strict conservative policy. Then a wealthy construction company owner jumped in, threw $12 million of his own money into the race and won Donald Trump’s backing.
Now Tim Michels is in a competitive race against Kleefisch en route to Tuesday’s primary to decide who will meet Democratic government Tony Evers in November.
The match is part of a deepening proxy fight between Trump and his estranged former vice president, Mike Pence, who has lent his support to Kleefisch. And it could ultimately have ramifications for 2024, when Trump has dangled the possibility of a new White House bid and has shown his willingness to pressure elected officials, including those in Wisconsin, to reverse the election results.
Michels has focused on shaping an outsider’s candidacy — backed by Trump’s endorsement — while Kleefisch has embraced her established support as proof that she’s a more reliable GOP pick.
Kleefisch and Michels have both questioned President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in Wisconsin in 2020 — an outcome that has endured recounts, lawsuits, and reviews — but neither has taken up Trump’s press campaign to have those results retracted. .
Kleefisch has called the 2020 elections “rigged” but said she will not consider decertification because “it is constitutionally not possible”. Michels initially called decertifying Biden’s 2020 Wisconsin win “not a priority” and later said “everything will be on the table.”
Both Michels and Kleefisch want to get rid of the current bipartisan commission that leads elections in the state.
A third Republican nominee for governor, State Representative Tim Ramthun, has repeatedly called for decertification and made it the centerpiece of his longshot campaign.
Biden’s Wisconsin win has passed two partial recounts, numerous lawsuits, an impartial audit and a review by a conservative law firm. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said decertification is impossible.
Kleefisch has received support not only from Pence, but also from her former boss Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, GOP leaders of the legislature, 56 lawmakers, the state chamber of commerce, the Tavern League, and a majority of the state’s county sheriffs.
“I’m the one tested and proven and ready to go,” Kleefisch said after Pence touted her at a stop in suburban Milwaukee on Wednesday. “I’m the one who won four times statewide.”
Michels claims he’s “not a politician,” but he’s been a power player for decades, largely behind the scenes, having previously run for the US Senate in 2004, losing to the then-Senate. Russian Feingold. He is a regular donor to Republicans, including both Walker and Kleefisch.
“People want an outsider, people want a veteran, people want a businessman,” Michels said in a candidate debate.
Wisconsin is the third state where Pence and Trump have stood on opposite sides in the governor’s races that revealed deep divisions about the future of the GOP. In Georgia, Pence-backed government leader Brian Kemp beat Trump’s pick, former Senator David Perdue, by more than 50 percentage points. In the Arizona governor’s primary election, Trump-backed former TV news host Kari Lake and Pence-backed businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson were in a race that was too early to call on Thursday.
The area that attracted Pence and Kleefisch on Wednesday is the heart of Republican Wisconsin and home to the key Milwaukee suburban voters likely to decide the fall election. It is also the home of Kleefisch. Trump, whose support in the area waned from 2016 to 2020, scheduled his Friday meeting for Michels just three miles from where Pence met Kleefisch.
“There is no candidate for governor in America more capable, more experienced, or more proven conservative than Rebecca Kleefisch,” Pence said in touting Kleefisch without mentioning Trump or Michels.
Kleefisch is a former Milwaukee television journalist and teen beauty pageant who entered politics in 2010 and won a five-time primary for lieutenant governor. After Evers defeated Walker in 2018, Kleefisch began to lay the groundwork for her own run.
She has reminded Republicans of the battles she endured with Walker when his proposal effectively ended collective bargaining, sparked mass protests in 2011, and ultimately a failed attempt to remove both him and Kleefisch from office. This cycle has focused her on things like instituting a flat income tax rate, expanding college elective programs, and investing more in law enforcement.
Michels, along with his brothers, co-owns the state’s largest construction company, Michels Corp., and has spent nearly $1 million a week of his own money since entering the race. While he uses Trump’s endorsement as proof of his outsider status, he is also backed by Wisconsin’s ultimate Republican political insider — former four-year governor Tommy Thompson, who briefly flirted with his own run.
Michels sometimes stumbled.
He freaked out this week when asked if he would support a Trump run in 2024, first refusing to say, and 24 hours later saying he would support Trump as president. In an earlier debate, he didn’t seem to know what DACA – Deferred Action for Children’s Arrivals, a highly controversial immigration program – stood for. And he’s been criticized for buying $30 million worth of real estate in New York and Connecticut between 2015 and 2020, dividing time between Wisconsin and the East Coast, where his kids attend high school and graduate.
Michels’ positions on the boards of several transportation-related industry groups have left him with some heartburn, with Kleefisch trying to tie him to those groups’ previous support for raising the state gas tax. Michels says he is against an increase.
He also runs ads that take a strong anti-immigrant stance, even though he headed the board of directors for a transportation group that opposed an anti-immigrant bill that would have prevented companies that employ “illegal aliens” from getting state contracts.
As Republicans battle, Evers has raised more than $11 million this year, setting himself up as the only blockade against Republicans seeking to revise the 2024 presidential campaign election and enforcing an 1849 state law banning abortions. Both Kleefisch and Michels support the ban and the bill, which is being challenged in court by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
“I have a good track record,” Evers said, pointing to the state’s 2.8% unemployment rate, increased funding for public schools, expanded broadband access in rural areas, emphasis on repairing roads and a 15% cut. of income taxes. “Let them come.”
Trump ally takes on Walker protégé in Wisconsin governor’s race
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