Battleground Wisconsin: GOP governor’s race pits top names against each other

MADISON, Wis. — It’s the race pitting two national figures against each other, former President Donald Trump backing Tim Michels, and former Vice President Mike Pence backing Rebecca Kleefisch. It will set up the Republican gubernatorial primary as a fight over how much influence Trump has in Wisconsin politics.

“Certainly the Trump endorsement has been pretty good,” said John Pudner, a political operative who has worked on Republican campaigns across the country. “You do have Republicans now who like the Trump agenda — I think it is a question of whether or not that means you want Trump again of you want someone else carrying his agenda.”

The candidate carrying that agenda forward is Michels, which contrasts with Kleefisch — who carries the legacy of former Gov. Scott Walker as his former lieutenant governor.

Election integrity: 

In the campaign, questions of the integrity of the 2020 election continue to reign, spurred considerably by the presence of Trump making an endorsement in the race. The former president has continued to reject the results of the Wisconsin election, but the candidates do not see decertifying those results as a front burner issue.

“It’s not a priority,” Michels said. “My priorities are election integrity, crime reduction, and education reform, and then the continuous — always from day one until my last day in office four years or eight years later — to make sure that we have a robust economy here in Wisconsin.”

“I have said in the past that the 2020 election I feel was rigged,” Kleefisch said. “As your governor I’ll abolish the Wisconsin Elections Commission, I will ban the use of ballot drop boxes, I will ban the use of central count.”

Abortion:

Another key focus of the race will be abortion. The overturning of Roe v. Wade was a big win for conservatives, but where do the candidates want to turn next?

“Being pro-life means being pro-woman and pro-baby, and as governor, I’m going to make sure that we treat moms with unexpected pregnancies with empathy and compassion and give them the resources they need,” Kleefisch said.

“Miscarriage care and ectopic pregnancy treatment are not abortion,” she added. “Abortion is illegal. ectopic pregnancy treatment and miscarriage treatment are not abortions.”

Michels said his philosophy comes from his faith.

“Let’s talk to them about adoption. Let’s talk to them about monies that are available for infants and toddlers out there. That’s what being pro life means,” he said.

At the same time, the candidates touched on how to support parents and children after the child is born.

“At Michael’s Corporation, we do provide paid leave for both the husband and the wife,” Michels said, adding that Wisconsin should implement a similar policy statewide.

Kleefisch said she wants to help parents get back to work.

“By making sure that we have child tax credits that flow through the employer so that the employee can keep more of his or her own hard-earned money,” she said.

Crime and public safety: 

Another likely motivating issue for Republican voters will be the issue of crime and calls for bail reform, especially in the wake of the Waukesha parade tragedy last year.

“It is bad district attorneys and bad judges who just let bad guys go with rap sheets a mile long to have a revolving door of criminal justice,” Kleefisch said. “That is why one of my very first steps is to pass bail and sentencing reform to take away discretion from bad district attorneys and bad judges.”

“We didn’t have this problem — school shootings mass shootings — 40 plus years ago,” Michels said. “Guns haven’t changed. Society has changed.”

Michels and Kleefisch face a third challenger — state Rep. Tim Ramthun — in the primary, but Ramthun has continuously polled far below the top-two candidates. The winner of the primary will go on to face incumbent Gov. Tony Evers in the fall, who is facing his first bid for reelection.

By virtue of it being a mid-term election, which traditionally favors the party not in the White House, it could be a good year for Republicans.

“Republicans probably have a bit of an edge going into this year for this election at least,” Pudner said.

This story is a part of News 3 Now’s Battleground Wisconsin primary election coverage. For an in-depth look at the race and the candidates running, click here.