Republicans hoping to reclaim an important governor seat in swing state of Wisconsin this year have long appeared to rely on Rebecca Cliffish, the former television news anchor who spent eight years as a successor to former Governor Scott Walker and vowed to continue his deeply conservative policies. Then a wealthy construction company owner jumped into the race, threw $12 million of his own money into the race and won the support of Donald Trump.
Now Tim Michaels is in a competitive race against Cliffish heading into Tuesday’s primary to determine who faces Democratic Governor Tony Evers in November.
The contest is part of a deep proxy battle between Trump and his estranged former vice president, Mike Pence, who has thrown his support behind Cliffish. This could eventually have repercussions for 2024, when Trump has signaled another possible bid for the White House and shown a willingness to pressure elected officials, including those in Wisconsin, to nullify the election results.
Michaels focused on putting together an outside candidate — bolstered by Trump’s endorsement — while Cliffish embraced her institutional backing as evidence that she was a more credible Republican option.
Cliffish and Michaels questioned President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in Wisconsin in 2020 — an outcome that has withstood recounts, lawsuits and revisions — but neither has Trump lobbied for those results.
Cliffish described the 2020 election as “rigged” but said she would not consider revoking the certificates because it was “not constitutionally possible.” Michaels initially described disbelief in Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin as “not a priority” and later said “everything will be on the table.”
Both Michael and Cliffish want to get rid of the current bipartisan committee that runs elections in the state.
A third Republican candidate for governor, Representative Tim Ramthon, has repeatedly called for the testimony to be withdrawn and made the focus of his long campaign.
Biden’s victory in Wisconsin has withstood two partial recounts, numerous lawsuits, a nonpartisan review and a review by a conservative law firm. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said that certification is impossible.
Cliffish had the support of not only Pence, but also her former president Walker, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Republican leaders in the legislature, 56 lawmakers, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Tavern League, and a majority of the state’s sheriffs.
“I’m the one who’s been tested, proven, and ready to go,” Cliffish said after Pence described her to her in a Milwaukee suburb on Wednesday. “I’m the one who won the state four times.”
Michaels claims to be “not a politician,” but he was a fairly powerful player behind the scenes for decades and previously ran for the US Senate in 2004, losing to the then-senator. Ross Feingold. He was a regular benefactor to Republicans, including both Walker and Cliffish.
“People want an outsider, people want a veteran, people want an entrepreneur,” Michaels said in a debate over one of the candidates.
Wisconsin is the third state in which Pence and Trump have been at odds in governor races that have highlighted deep divisions over the future of the Republican Party. In Georgia, the Pence-backed governor, Brian Kemp, beat Trump’s pick, former Senator David Perdue, by more than 50 percentage points. In the Arizona gubernatorial primaries, former Trump-backed TV news anchor Carrie Lake and Pence-backed businessman Karen Taylor Robson entered a race that was too early to call Thursday.
The territory that drew Pence and Cliffish on Wednesday is the Republican heart of Wisconsin and home to the major suburban Milwaukee voters likely to decide the fall elections. It is also the land of the Kleefisch house. Trump, whose support in the region dipped from 2016 to 2020, plans to rally on Friday for Michaels just three miles from where Pence came for Cliffish.
“No candidate for governor in America is more capable, experienced, or more conservative than Rebecca Cliffish,” Pence said of Cliffish, without mentioning Trump or Michaels.
Kleefisch is a former Milwaukee television news anchor and teen beauty pageant contestant who entered politics in 2010 and won the five-year primaries for governor. After Evers beat Walker in 2018, Cliffish began laying the groundwork for her own path.
She reminded Republicans of her battles with Walker, when his proposal to end collective bargaining effectively led to mass protests in 2011 and ultimately a failed attempt to recall him and Cliffish from office. In this course, I focused on issues such as introducing a flat income tax, expanding school choice programs, and increasing investment in law enforcement.
Michaels co-owns the state’s largest construction company, Michels Corp. , along with his siblings, has spent nearly $1 million a week of his own money since entering the race. Although he uses Trump’s endorsement as evidence of his outsider status, he is also supported by the absolute Republican political insider in Wisconsin – former four-term governor Tommy Thompson, who was briefly courting his run.
Michaels has faltered at times.
He backed down this week when asked if he would support Trump’s candidacy in 2024, first refusing to say, then 24 hours later saying he would support Trump for president. In a previous debate, he didn’t seem to know what DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a highly controversial immigration program – represented. He has faced criticism for buying $30 million of real estate 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.
Michaels’ positions on the boards of several transportation-related industry groups caused some acidity, which Cliffish sought to associate with those groups’ previous support for a state gas tax increase. Michaels says he opposes the increase.
He also runs ads that take a strong anti-immigration stance, even though he has chaired the board of a transportation group that opposed an anti-immigration bill that would have prevented companies employing “illegal aliens” from obtaining government contracts.
And as Republicans wrestle, Evers has raised more than $11 million this year and portrays himself as the only bloc against Republicans who want election reform for the 2024 presidential campaign and the state’s 1849 law banning abortions. Cliffish and Michaels both support the ban and the law, which Democratic Attorney General Josh Cole is challenging in court.
“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, a focus on road repairs, and a 15% income tax cut. “Let them bring it.”