MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican hopes to reclaim a crucial governor’s seat in swing-state Wisconsin this year long appeared to rest on Rebecca Kleefisch, a former TV news anchor who spent eight years as former Gov. Scott Walker’s heir apparent and vowed to continue his sharply conservative policies. Then a wealthy construction company owner jumped in, dumped $12 million of his own money into the race and won Donald Trump’s backing.
The contest is part of a deepening proxy fight between Trump and his estranged former vice president, Mike Pence, who has thrown his support to Kleefisch. And it could ultimately have implications for 2024, when Trump has dangled the possibility of another White House bid and has shown his willingness to pressure elected officials, including those in Wisconsin, to overturn election results.
Michels has focused on shaping an outsider candidacy — bolstered by the Trump endorsement — while Kleefisch has embraced her establishment support as evidence that she’s a more reliable GOP choice.
Trump appeared with Michels at a Friday night rally in Waukesha, the heart of Milwaukee's conservative suburbs. Trump called Kleefisch “a career politician and a political insider. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s the handpicked candidate of the failed establishment, the RINOs.” That's a derogatory term standing for ”Republican in name only."
“Rebecca Kleefisch does not have what it takes to beat Tony Evers," Trump said. “He’s going to win if he runs against Rebecca."
Michels appeared on stage with Trump, but did not call for overturning the 2020 election.
Kleefisch and Michels have both questioned President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in Wisconsin in 2020 — an outcome that has withstood recounts, lawsuits and reviews — but neither has taken up Trump’s pressure campaign to have those results decertified.
Kleefisch has called the 2020 election “rigged” but said she won’t consider decertification because “it’s not constitutionally possible.” Michels initially called decertifying Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin “not a priority” and then later said “everything will be on the table.”
Both Michels and Kleefisch want to do away with the current bipartisan commission that runs elections in the state.
A third Republican candidate for governor, state Rep. Tim Ramthun, has repeatedly called for decertification and made it the centerpiece of his longshot campaign.
Biden’s win in Wisconsin has withstood two partial recounts, numerous lawsuits, a nonpartisan audit and a review by a conservative law firm. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said decertification is impossible.
Kleefisch has racked up support not only from Pence, but also 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 am the one who is tested and proven and ready to go,” Kleefisch said after Pence touted her at a stop in suburban Milwaukee on Wednesday. “I am the one who has won statewide four times.”
Michels claims that he is “not a politician,” but he’s been a power player largely behind the scenes for decades and previously ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, losing to then-Sen. Russ Feingold. He’s been 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 been on opposite sides in governor's races that highlighted deep divisions about the GOP’s future. In Georgia, Pence-backed Gov. Brian Kemp thumped Trump’s choice, former Sen. David Perdue, by more than 50 percentage points. In Arizona’s governor primary, Trump-backed former TV news anchor Kari Lake and Pence-backed businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson were in a race that was too early to call on Thursday.
The territory that drew Pence and Kleefisch on Wednesday is the heart of Republican Wisconsin and home to the key suburban Milwaukee voters who will likely decide the fall election. It’s also Kleefisch’s home turf. Trump, whose support in the area declined from 2016 to 2020, held his Friday rally for Michels just three miles from where Pence came for Kleefisch.
“There is no candidate for governor in America who is more capable, more experienced, or a more proven conservative than Rebecca Kleefisch,” Pence said in touting Kleefisch without mentioning Trump or Michels.
Kleefisch is a former Milwaukee television news anchor and teenage beauty pageant contestant who got into politics in 2010 and won a five-way primary for lieutenant governor. After Evers beat Walker in 2018, Kleefisch started laying the groundwork for her own run.
She has reminded Republicans about the fights she went through with Walker, when his proposal effectively ending collective bargaining led to massive protests in 2011 and eventually a failed attempt to recall both him and Kleefisch from office. This cycle, she has focused on issues like instituting a flat income tax, expanding school choice programs and investing more in law enforcement.
Michels co-owns the state’s largest construction company, Michels Corp., along with his brothers, and has spent nearly $1 million a week of his own money since getting into the race. Though he uses the Trump endorsement as evidence of his outsider status, he’s also backed by Wisconsin’s ultimate Republican political insider — four-term former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who briefly flirted with his own run.
Michels has stumbled at times.
He flip-flopped this week when asked whether he would back a Trump run in 2024, first refusing to say, then 24 hours later saying he would back Trump for president. At an earlier debate, he didn’t appear to know what DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a highly contentious immigration program — stood for. And he’s faced criticism for purchasing $30 million in properties in New York and Connecticut between 2015 and 2020 and splitting time 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 have caused him some heartburn, with Kleefisch seeking to tie him to those groups’ past support for raising the state gas tax. Michels says he opposes an increase.
He is also running ads taking a strong anti-immigrant position, even though he headed the board of directors of a transportation group that opposed an anti-immigrant bill that would have prevented companies that employ “illegal aliens” from getting state contracts.
While the Republicans battle, Evers has raised more than $11 million this year and is casting himself as the only block against Republicans who want to overhaul elections for the 2024 presidential campaign and keep in place an 1849 state law banning abortions. Both Kleefisch and Michels support the ban and the law, which is being challenged in court by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
“I have a good record,” Evers said, highlighting the state’s 2.8% unemployment rate, increased funding for public schools, expanded rural broadband access, emphasis on repairing roads and a 15% cut in income taxes. “Let them bring it on.”