MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Voters will choose a Republican candidate for Governor of Wisconsin Tuesday that could reshape the way elections are played out on the marquee battleground, where former President Donald Trump is still pushing to reverse his 2020 defeat and back candidates he sees as allies.
Trump approved businessman Tim Michelsa self-proclaimed underdog who has invested $12 million in his own campaign, against former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, which has the backing of former Vice President Mike Pence and the ex-governor. Scott Walker. Both candidates falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged, although Kleefisch said decertifying the results is “unconstitutional”, while Michels said “everything will be on the table”.
The race to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is another proxy war between Trump and Pence, one-off partners now pursuing different futures for the Republican Party. They also backed opposing GOP rivals in the primaries in Arizona and Georgia — swing states that, like Wisconsin, are expected to be critical in the 2024 presidential race when both men could be on the ballot.
The primary comes a day later FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified White House files to his residence in Florida, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
In the states Senate RaceLt. Governor Mandela Barnes is the likely Democratic nominee to take on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, after Barnes’ main rivals abandoned the race late last month. The game is one of the last to be set ahead of November’s general election, when control of the Senate currently split 50-50 is up for grabs, and Democrats see Wisconsin as one of their better opportunities return a seat.
Trump also backed a little-known challenger to the state’s most powerful Republican, the state President of the Assembly Robin Voswho rejected pressure from the former president to decertify the 2020 results.
Tuesday’s results have far-reaching implications beyond Wisconsin, a state nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and where 2022 will be seen as a predictor for the 2024 presidential race. Whoever elected governor this fall will serve for the presidential election and will be able to sign or veto changes to election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The next governor and U.S. senator can also influence decisions on issues ranging from abortion to education and taxes.
“We’re a 50-50 state and so every race in Wisconsin, by definition, is going to be decided by a few percentage points one way or another,” said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. . “And those few percentage points in Wisconsin may well set the course of the nation for years to come.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, voters in Vermont — the only state never to have a woman in its congressional delegation — were poised, as polls closed, to nominate a woman for the state’s only seat in the House. The winner will replace Rep. Peter Welch, who won the Democratic Senate nomination as he seeks the seat held for more than four decades by retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy. In Connecticut, Republicans were picking an opponent to face two-term Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. And Minnesota Republicans had to choose Dr. Scott Jensena skeptic of the state’s GOP-approved COVID-19 vaccine, to confront Gov. Tim Walz.
But the most-watched races will be in Wisconsin, where Trump has maintained his push campaign to reverse President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Biden won nearly 21,000 votes, four years after Trump also narrowly won the state with about the same margin. The 2020 result was upheld in two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple lawsuits.
Both Michels and Kleefisch have said nullifying the 2020 election results is not a priority. But they said they would dismantle the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin’s election and support a ban on voters asking anyone else to deliver their mail-in ballots, as well as ballot boxes located anywhere other than in staffed clerk’s offices.
Evers did voting and elections at the center of concerns of his own campaign, telling voters that he is the only candidate who will stand up for democracy and “we are about to not count our votes in the state of Wisconsin”.
Kleefisch is a former television journalist who served with Walker for two terms, including when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most state public employees in 2011, sparking huge protests and an attempt to failed recall. She says she’s best prepared to win statewide in November and embrace conservative priorities, including investing more in policing, expanding school choice programs and implementing a flat income tax. .
During a campaign stop with Kleefisch last week, Pence said no other gubernatorial candidate in the United States was “more capable, more experienced or a more proven conservative.”
Michels co-owns Wisconsin’s largest construction company and has touted his work building the family business. He lost the 2004 Senate race to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and was a major donor to GOP politicians.
At a rally on Friday, Trump hailed Michels as an “incredible achievement.” He criticized Kleefisch as part of the “failed establishment” and also took aim at Vos. He told his supporters that Michels would win the primary “easily” and that he was the best choice to defeat Evers.
Michels promised that “we’re going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin.” He also said he would bring “law and order” back to Wisconsin, criticized Evers’ handling of schools and blamed Biden for the price hikes.
Voter Gary Steinbrecher, 62, said he voted for Kleefisch on Tuesday because she opposes abortion and “has been around for a long time.” He also thinks she has the best chance of defeating Evers.
“I think she would appeal to suburban women voters more than other candidates,” said semi-retired Steinbrecher.
Franklin Szpot, 42, voted for Michels. He said he appreciates that Michels is a business owner and served in the U.S. military. Szpot also liked the contestant’s “to the point” ads.
“He just seems like a sensible type of guy and he’s the kind of person we need in the office right now,” he said.
GOP state Rep. Tim Ramthun is also making a long-running bid for governor and has made nullifying Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes for Biden the centerpiece of his campaign.
In the Senate race, Barnes is the heavy favorite after his rivals, including Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, left the race. A native of Milwaukee and a former state legislator who would be Wisconsin’s first black senator, Barnes says he wants to help rebuild the middle class and protect abortion rights. A state ban on abortion took effect after the United States Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
The race against Johnson is one of the few blows to the Senate and has already been a fight between Barnes and Johnson, a millionaire and former plastics company owner who was first elected as part of the movement Tea Party in 2010.
Barnes has attacked Johnson for supporting a tax bill that benefited wealthy donors and his own company, touting ‘wild conspiracy theories’ about COVID-19 vaccines and for attempting to deliver ballots fake GOP voters at Pence on the day of the Capitol insurrection.
Johnson and Republicans have criticized Barnes as too liberal for Wisconsin, noting his endorsements of progressive senses Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They resurfaced moments from Barnes’ past, including a photo of him holding a T-shirt that reads “Abolish ICE,” or US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Trump and Pence have split over gubernatorial candidates with mixed results. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp – he also rejected pressure from Trump to reverse his 2020 loss – had Pence’s backing as he defeated a Trump-endorsed challenger, former U.S. Senator David Perdue. But Kari Lake won the Arizona primary last week with Trump’s backing, beating a Pence-backed candidate after saying she wouldn’t have certified Biden winning there.
The candidate Trump has endorsed to face Vos, Adam Steen, said he would decertify Biden’s victory.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Journalist Gretchen Ehlke contributed from Thiensville, Wis.