Commentary

How Trumpy are we, Wisconsin?

Trump-backed candidates shake up the GOP establishment. Now what?

August 10, 2022 1:00 am
WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 05: Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally on August 05, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Former President Trump endorsed Republican candidate Tim Michels in the governor's race against candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, who is supported by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 05: Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally on August 05, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Former President Trump endorsed Republican candidate Tim Michels in the governor’s race against candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, who is supported by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Like a summer storm, Donald Trump blew through the Wisconsin Republican primary, propelling his chosen candidate, construction company owner Tim Michels, to victory over the establishment-picked former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

At a rally in Waukesha for Michels last Friday, Trump not only attacked Kleefisch, whom he called “the handpicked candidate of a failed establishment,” but also focused on bashing the leader of that establishment, the most powerful Republican politician in Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Trump has made no secret of his resentment after Vos failed to accomplish the legally impossible task of overturning Wisconsin’s votes for President Joe Biden. At the rally, Trump endorsed Vos’s primary challenger, the virtually unknown Adam Steen, who went on to give Vos a shocking run for his money on Tuesday, coming within three percentage points of taking down Wisconsin’s longest-serving leader of the Assembly.

Trump ginned up the drama by getting Michael Gableman — the former state Supreme Court justice Vos hired to look into Trump’s disproven claims of fraud in Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election — to turn on his boss and back Vos’ challenger. Trump himself announced that Gableman was backing Steen at the Waukesha rally.

Gableman even recorded a robocall to voters in Vos’ district in which he declared, “everything that my office and I have been able to do, to expose all the corruption that took place, has been in spite of Robin and not because of him.”

It was a pretty bold move for a former Supreme Court justice who never landed a lucrative law firm job after leaving the state’s highest court, and who has been receiving $11,000 per month from the taxpayers, courtesy of Vos. Gableman’s investigation found “absolutely no evidence” of fraud, as Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rhin put it, noting that Gableman has been collecting a handsome sum from Wisconsinites “to sit in the New Berlin library to learn about election law because he knows nothing about election law.”

After declaring victory Tuesday night, Vos called Gableman “an embarrassment to the state of Wisconsin” and announced that the Republican legislative caucus would meet to discuss whether he will keep his current position. 

Gableman’s days are clearly numbered. Vos allowed his incompetent and expensive farce of an investigation to go on for a while in an effort to appease the pro-Trump base. Trump, the base and Gableman all turned on him anyway. Vos survived. But what happens next with the whole posse of Trump-backed election deniers who have been pushing their agenda on the Wisconsin Republican Party?

If Michels manages to defeat Gov. Tony Evers, he could sign Republican bills remaking Wisconsin’s election laws and empowering the Legislature to override the will of the people. There will be no check on extremism, and, given Trump’s show of strength in the primary, politicians who know better might feel  more pressure to go along.

If Evers wins, there will still be a stopgap. And Trump’s mounting legal troubles may also diminish his power and the urge of Republican establishment types to keep feeding conspiracy theories.

Vos, after all, is not the only Republican who, while working to appease the Trump base, doesn’t actually buy into the whole Big Lie narrative.

It was interesting to listen to Michels, in his victory speech, thank  both Trump and former Republican governor Tommy Thompson for their support.

Michels noted “a lot of similarities” between himself and the former president.

“He didn’t have to run for president, I don’t have to run for governor,” he said. “He wanted to drain the swamp. … We found out it’s a really big swamp.” Over and over in his speech he promised to represent the “hard-working people of Wisconsin” against a political establishment that has “forgotten” them, echoing Trump’s appeals to disaffected voters.

But in thanking Thompson for his endorsement, he said, “he knows how to bridge the gap, how to get over partisanship.”

Thompson’s friendly, bipartisan style of governing was about as far from Trump as you can get, as Thompson himself noted ruefully in a speech at the Milwaukee Press Club this year, lamenting the divisiveness of our current politics.

And Michels, before his sudden entry into electoral politics, was more of a deal-making establishment guy himself. In its closing days, the Michels campaign focused heavily on bashing Kleefisch’s husband Joel, a former legislator, for becoming a lobbyist. But Michels was the president of the board of Wisconsin’s roadbuilders’ lobby before he was a candidate. And one of the issues his group lobbied on was killing a bill that would have punished the employers of undocumented immigrants by making them ineligible for lucrative government contracts.

Now Michels is the anti-lobbyist, anti-establishment candidate who brags about building the prototype for Trump’s border wall and wants to crack down on the undocumented workers he calls “illegals” — whom he knows perfectly well are propping up the construction industry and agriculture in Wisconsin.

Much of Michels’ populist crusader image is a facade, as former Republican Gov. Scott Walker snarked in an interview with Wisconsin Right Now. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, like Thompson a bipartisan consensus-builder, reflected on Wisconsin’s Republican primary on Tuesday afternoon, while she was in Madison touring Franklin Electric, which makes components for electric vehicle charging stations, and touting the breakthrough investments in green energy in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the massive Inflation Reduction Act that just passed the Senate. 

“So many people look at it as a contest between Trump and Pence played out on a local level,” she said of the GOP gubernatorial race. “I don’t want either of those people to be symbols of the Republican Party. To have a healthy two-party system, we need a party on the other side that’s free of the grip of Donald Trump.”

But for now, Tuesday’s primaries set the stage for a general election showdown between two big Trump supporters — Michels and Sen. Ron Johnson — and Democrats Gov. Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes. 

As Baldwin put it, “the contrast between Mandela Barnes and Ron Johnson could not be more pronounced. When you think of all that’s at stake – women’s reproductive health, climate change, the cost of health care – all of those things are on the ballot.”

The same is true in the governor’s race. Wisconsin is not free of Trump’s grip yet.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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