WAUKESHA, Wis. — Beckoned to the stage by former president Donald Trump just days before Wisconsin’s primary for governor, Tim Michels touched on an issue important to many Republican voters in this battleground state.
He then quickly moved on to other topics.
What was conspicuously absent from Michels’s comments ahead of Tuesday’s primary were details. As he has throughout his campaign, Michels avoided addressing whether he would certify the 2024 presidential election or attempt the legally impossible feat of reversing Trump’s 2020 loss.
Michels’s profile contrasts with those of other gubernatorial hopefuls Trump has endorsed. In Pennsylvania, he picked state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), who led an effort to overturn the election in the state and was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, when the U.S. Capitol came under attack. In Arizona, Trump backed former television anchor Kari Lake as she campaigned on false claims that Trump won in 2020 and promised to change the way votes are cast and counted in the state. In Michigan, Trump endorsed former anchor Tudor Dixon after she raised her hand during a debate when asked if she believed the election was stolen. Mastriano, Lake and Dixon all won their primaries.
Now, Trump is banking on a different type of candidate in Wisconsin — one who won’t spell out what he would do when it comes to elections. In doing so, Trump passed over two other major contenders: state Rep. Tim Ramthun, who has rallied behind Trump’s false assertions, and former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who has argued the 2020 results were rigged by election officials.
At his rally in suburban Milwaukee on Friday, Trump indicated he’d made his endorsement calculation for Wisconsin based on who he believes is most capable of defeating Gov. Tony Evers (D), who for 3½ years has blocked Republican efforts to rewrite election laws.
Public polling has been scant for Tuesday’s primary, but Ramthun has distantly trailed the others, and Trump has insisted that Kleefisch cannot win in November.
“Rebecca Kleefisch does not have what it takes to beat Tony Evers,” Trump said.
Trump has also harbored a grudge against Kleefisch. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the former president in an April meeting with Michels criticized tweets about Kleefisch’s teenage daughter going to homecoming with the son of Brian Hagedorn, a state Supreme Court justice who ruled against Trump in one of his lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 results.
Changes to election rules could have implications for who wins the next presidential election in a state that is often narrowly decided. Evers told supporters recently that if a Republican beats him this fall, “we will see the elections change to the point where the legislature makes the final decision — and that should scare the living crap out of everybody in this room.”
Joe Biden beat Trump by about 21,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast in Wisconsin — a margin similar to the one that Trump enjoyed four years earlier. Courts have repeatedly ruled Wisconsin’s election was properly called for Biden, and a legislative audit and a review of votes by a conservative group found no evidence of significant fraud.
Michels’s cautious strategy reflects the 50-50 nature of Wisconsin, where candidates need the support of independent voters to win. The Republican nominee will need to capture those swing voters, as well as the segment of the Republican base that is obsessed with how the 2020 election was conducted.
The three Republicans running for governor in Wisconsin have said they want to keep in place a recent ban on most ballot drop boxes, bar nonprofit groups from making donations to help pay for elections and ensure voters can’t have someone else return their absentee ballots on their behalf. They also want, in some fashion, to get rid of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which was created by Republican lawmakers in 2015 to oversee elections and enforce voting laws.
At every turn, Michels has avoided being pinned down on election matters. He has largely dodged reporters and skipped a June debate that he knew would center largely on election issues.
Of the three Republicans, Michels has been the least specific about what he wants to do with the elections commission. In May, he said that, as governor, he would force the state’s six commissioners out of their jobs so new ones could be named. Three weeks later, he changed course and said he wanted to eradicate the commission. In June, he said he would soon offer a third plan for the Wisconsin Elections Commission — but so far hasn’t. At a debate last month he said he would create what he called a “WEC 2.0” that features members from across the state.
Michels’s lack of a hard line has not gone over well with some in the Republican base.
“We’re getting rid of it and we’re going to start a new one,” Michels said of the elections commission at a conservative gathering in June. “We’re going to build it from scratch.”
The crowd was stunned.
“Wait. You’re not getting rid of it?” one man asked.
Michels reiterated that he planned to dismantle the commission and create a new one. Some in the crowd groaned.
In July, six weeks after receiving Trump’s endorsement, Michels sidestepped questions from Madison TV station WKOW about whether he would try to decertify the 2020 results, saying he would have to “see what these bills look like.” Soon afterward, Trump put pressure on Michels and noted he had left open the possibility he would seek to revoke the state’s 10 electoral votes.
“Tim Michels will win if he remains strong on the Rigged and Stolen Election. Otherwise, he has no chance,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.
A day after Trump’s post, Michels put his attention on the 2020 election during a rally in the parking lot of a trucking company along Interstate 94 south of Milwaukee in Mount Pleasant.
“My very first priority is election integrity,” he said as his supporters sipped Miller Lite. “Everywhere I go on the campaign trail, people, the media, everybody says, ‘Tim, Tim, was the election fixed? Was the election rigged?’ I have a lot of questions, as everybody else has questions.”
In a brief interview afterward, Michels wouldn’t say whether he would try to reverse the 2020 election if he wins.
“I won’t get sworn into governor until January of 2023,” he said. “You know, that’s a long time after the 2020 election, and the 2024 election cycle will have already started. That’s what we need to focus on.”
At a debate days later, Michels said decertifying the 2020 election is “not a priority.” A week after that, during the final primary debate, he expressed more openness to decertification, saying, “I will look at all the evidence and everything will be on the table, and I will make the right decision.”
Michels, 60, is a longtime donor to Republican candidates and has invested nearly $8 million of his own money in his campaign for governor. He and his brothers took over the family construction business after their father died in 1998. Their firm, Michels Corp. of Brownsville, Wis., employs 8,000 workers and builds highways, dams, pipelines, transmission lines and tunnels. Eighteen years ago, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Russ Feingold.
Kleefisch, 47, in an interview criticized Michels for not being clearer with voters about his views on elections, saying his dodging on the issue “might have been a chance for voters to lose trust in Michels.”
Kleefisch said there is “no clear path” to decertifying the 2020 election. She said as governor she would certify the 2024 presidential results because by then she would have changed the state’s election policies.
Kleefisch recently received the endorsement of former vice president Mike Pence, who refused to go along with Trump’s demands after the 2020 election to not count the results from Wisconsin and some other states he lost. Kleefisch in February would not answer whether she believed Trump or Pence was right in that dispute.
Like Michels, she has avoided answering some other questions about elections. In the fall she said Biden won but later declined to acknowledge that point. This spring, she declined to say whether she would have certified the 2020 results had she been governor then.
Kleefisch has insisted the 2020 election had been “rigged” because Democrats on the state elections commission prevented the Green Party candidate from getting on the ballot because the paperwork the party filed was inconsistent. Republicans had hoped the Green Party would have picked off some of Biden’s votes. But Kleefisch said she wouldn’t make up her mind on whether the election had been stolen outright until Republican lawmakers complete a stalled review of the 2020 election that they launched last year.
“I think that until we get to the bottom of what happened in 2020, and we actually have a conclusion from which we can move forward, then we need to continue to investigate the 2020 election,” she said.
She wants to disband the elections commission and gives its duties to a committee of lawmakers or the secretary of state. Unlike many other states, Wisconsin’s secretary of state has few responsibilities for elections.
At Friday’s rally in Waukesha, Trump noted Kleefisch was lieutenant governor when Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republican lawmakers approved creating the elections commission seven years ago.
“This commission is a disaster,” Trump told the crowd. “It was created on her watch.”
Ramthun, 65, who wants to give the elections commission’s powers to the secretary of state, is going much further than either of his opponents. At a recent news conference in the state Capitol, he said sheriffs might want to consider seizing voting machines and ballots. As he has for months, he called for invalidating the 2020 results.
“In a way, we don't know exactly the true outcome of the election,” he said, even though the results are known from the official canvass, recounts and court rulings. “So how can you certify something that is unknown? And yet it was certified. So we have to decertify that to turn that switch back off again.”
Some Republicans aren’t buying Ramthun’s talk. At the Jefferson County Fair last month, corn and soybean seed salesman Gregory Cook said he wanted the candidates to focus on pocketbook issues instead of the last election.
“Some of them are making it too much of a point,” Cook said after picking up a Kleefisch yard sign. “And no one cares. That’s my opinion. We’re past it. It’s two years ago.”
Evers in an interview said Republicans are reckless in how they’re talking about elections — especially by attacking a commission that Republicans put in place.
“The bottom line is they created it,” Evers said. “It’s been fair and safe and secure. We have a bipartisan commission — let’s let it work. And what they’re doing will cause fewer people to vote. Simple as that. And they must think that that’s to their advantage.”
At Trump’s rally Friday for Michels, speaker after speaker fired up the crowd by questioning how the 2020 election was conducted. Trump repeated his false claims about a stolen election, telling the crowd: “I ran twice, I won twice — did much better the second time than I did the first, getting millions more votes in 2020 than we got in 2016.”
But when he invited Michels to the stage, Trump barely mentioned election rules and instead talked about construction equipment and Michels’ success as a businessman.
“He’s all over the world, building these big tunnels that go through incredible granite mountains,” Trump said. “I was with him, I spent more time talking about that than I did, frankly, politics. … He’s big. He’s big-time, is the point. This is big stuff. The biggest in the world at what he does.”
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November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.
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