How Wisconsin’s close elections shape — and are shaped by — national politics

By: - August 12, 2022 6:05 am
Wisconsin state flag

Wisconsin State Flag | Getty Images

Many political observers see Wisconsin’s gubernatorial contest as a proxy war between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.

“If November is a referendum on Biden, Republicans win. If it’s a referendum on Trump, Democrats win,” said JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics, quoting the conventional wisdom expressed by political consultants of both parties during a panel discussion Thursday with state and national political reporters. To win, Michels will want to focus on Biden’s record, while incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will attempt to tie Michels to Trump, who could quickly become a liability for the GOP challenger.

Trump endorsed the winner in the Republican primary for governor, Tim Michels. The loser — Michels labeled her the establishment candidate — was former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence.

As Michels pivots to challenge Evers in the general election, he seems to agree with the assessment that it’s time to put a little distance between himself and Trump. After appearing with Trump at a massive rally last Friday and touting the former president’s endorsement throughout the primary, he suddenly shifted gears after his Tuesday victory, cutting an ad attacking Evers and Biden that doesn’t mention Trump at all. He changed what he described as his “No. 1 priority” from “election integrity,” his top focus during the primary, to “standing up for the hardworking people of Wisconsin,” as he put it in his victory speech. Plus, he surreptitiously removed a prominent mention of Trump’s endorsement from his campaign website (then restored it after New York Times political reporter Reid Esptein pointed it out.

‘Trump owns him’

Evers mocked Michels on the day after the primary, telling reporters at a campaign stop, “Trump owns him, he owns Trump,” and noting that the construction company owner presenting himself as a champion of working people is a bit of a stretch for a candidate who owns a $17 million home in Connecticut.

Like other Republicans running in 2024, Michels is focusing on inflation and gas prices, blaming Biden and, by extension, Evers, for both of those problems.

In the governor’s race, however, national politics might not really drive voting patterns, according to veteran national political reporter Lou Jacobson, who covers politics for US News, PolitiFact and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Voter approval of governors across the country has not tracked national trends, which show widespread disapproval for federal office holders, Jacobson pointed out during the WisPolitics panel discussion.

“At a time when Biden’s got 39% approval, Trump has 39% approval, the Supreme Court is down, Congress is down … all but three or four governors had had their approval ratings above water, and like three-quarters of them were at more than double digits above water,” Jacobson said.( Evers’ approval rating in the June Marquette University Law School poll was 48%, compared to 40% for Biden.) Governor’s races are different from national races, Jacobson said, where, especially in midterm elections, voters are typically in an anti-incumbent mood. “So it would not shock me if there is a pro-incumbent tendency,” he added, “at least for the governors.”

That could be good news for Democrats, who are defending an incumbent governor while running against two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson.

But don’t count Johnson out, members of the panel warned. Despite having his re-election race labeled a toss-up, by the Cook Political Report a rarity among 2022 Senate incumbents defending their seats, Johnson has a loyal following in Wisconsin that doesn’t necessarily care about his COVID conspiracy theories or his embrace of the Jan. 6 rioters, said Jessie Opoien, Capitol bureau chief of The Capital Times and Emilee Fannon, Capitol reporter for CBS 58 Milwaukee.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, emerging from a primary in which his top three opponents all folded their tents and endorsed him in the closing weeks, could suffer from not being tested early, Ross said. Johnson is already trying to paint him as an out-of-touch leftist who once posed for a photo with a T-shirt that said “Abolish ICE.” Perhaps it would have helped him to fend off those inevitable attacks earlier, Ross suggested. (Barnes, who posed with the shirt at an immigrant rights rally to protest the Trump administration’s family separation policy, has told the Examiner that while he is a strong supporter of more humane immigration policies, he doesn’t favor abolishing ICE.)

Barnes comes from a working-class, union family and would be the first Black senator elected from Wisconsin. He has done a good job so far, Fannon and Opoien said, of deflecting attacks by refocusing on his inspiring personal story and making a warm connection with voters.

That is true both on economic issues, where Barnes argues convincingly that his family background has given him insight into the problems and aspirations of working families in Wisconsin, and on the issue of abortion. His mother appears in a campaign ad to tell the story of the pregnancy complications that led her to have an abortion before he was born. “It’s personal,” Barnes says of the issue.

Abortion and women voters

Abortion is a big motivator in the fall elections, all of the WisPolitics panelists agreed. In Wisconsin, where an 1849 no-exceptions abortion ban makes the procedure a felony, women in particular are highly motivated to vote on the issue.

“There’s a lot of women telling their stories for the first time,” said Fannon. “And I think when they go get coffee, go to brunches, even in my conversations, people are talking about really difficult times that they went through, maybe personally needing an abortion or something happening and having to have a medical abortion if it was an emergency.”

“I think among certainly Democratic women and probably some more moderate [Republican] women it’s more of a motivating factor than it is for men,” said Opoien.

Both Fannon and Opoien said they have heard from women of all ages who are getting involved in politics this year because they are worried about abortion access.

Across the country, in battleground states, “the rubber is really hitting the road now for voters,” said Jacobson. “If you care about abortion rights, now is the time to get active. And nowhere is this truer — with the possible exception of Michigan, maybe — than the state of Wisconsin.”

Support for Republican candidates has softened among suburban women, in particular, who are not fans of either hard line anti-abortion politics or Donald Trump. Johnson has been losing support among suburban women for years, as he has embraced both Trump and Wisconsin’s no-exceptions abortion ban.

But in the gubernatorial primary, Michels showed that it was possible to lose the suburbs and win the state’s Republican vote with a heavy turnout in rural areas. Michels “broke with Republican history and prevailed without winning Milwaukee’s suburbs,” Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reports. “Michels won his biggest margins in the ‘Trumpiest’ parts of Wisconsin, winning small rural counties by 20, 30 and 40 points,” Gilbert writes.  He points out that Kleefisch won suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties by mere single digits, while Michels racked up huge wins in the more rural western part of the state.

Unlike previous Republican contests, “the WOW counties [Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, which surround Milwaukee] did not crown the Republican winner in Wisconsin, because the WOW counties were themselves divided in this very divisive primary fight,” Gilbert writes,“because Wisconsin’s smaller counties spoke with a more unified voice and because the center of gravity in the GOP has shifted in a rural direction.”

That phenomenon is part of  the Trump effect that is remaking politics in Wisconsin. It remains to be seen how it will play out in a general election, when a broader coalition is needed to win.

Not only did Trump help propel Michels to a solid victory over Kleefisch, who had the endorsements of both former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the powerful Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, but Vos’ Trump-endorsed challenger gave the de facto leader of the state Republican party a run for his money. Vos beat back the challenge and won his primary by a mere 260 votes, a result Opoien called “shocking.”

Anti-establishment Republicans

Opoien and Fannon both noted that Vos was particularly vulnerable to attack because the movement to demand decertification of Wisconsin’s 2020 electoral vote — something Vos accurately said was impossible, earning the everlasting ire of Trump — was based in Vos’ home district in southeastern Wisconsin. Another reason for the strength of the insurgent campaign against him, both reporters said, might be a general anti-establishment mood among Republican voters, who felt not only that Vos should have done more to overturn election results, but also that he could have achieved more when Walker was governor and Republicans held both the legislative and executive branches of state government.

The same sentiment may have hurt Walker’s former lieutenant, Kleefisch. “People are just tired of the same old same old and that’s what I heard from supporters at Michel’s campaign,” said Fannon.

All of the panelists agreed that neither the revelations of the Jan. 6 committee hearings nor the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence is likely to change the minds of voters, whose opinions of Trump have already solidified — although the backlash against the FBI coming to Mar-a-Lago may have further inflamed Trump supporters. 

But Jacobson did sketch out a scenario in which Republicans might begin to disengage from the former president: “I think that the 30,000-foot view is that most Americans’ minds are made up about Trump and nothing will move them off of that,” he said. “The closer view, the 1,000-foot view, would be that it may not cause a lot of Republicans to suddenly say, ‘OK, well after five years or six years now, actually, I don’t like Trump,’ — it’s more of a question of ‘OK, given the party’s need to look ahead to 2024, is Trump our best possibility?’”  What Jacobson called the “ soft erosion” of Trump support, as people consider whether another candidate might have a better shot, is the most likely scenario for Republicans finally moving on. 

But, he warned, “It’s going to take a critical mass and it’s going to take leadership of the party to actually move past Trump if they’re going to do that. Right now, you know, I don’t see it happening.”

One thing is certain: Wisconsin’s prominence as a swing state means it will remain in the national spotlight. And that means a lot of money is going to pour into the fall elections here. Every seat matters in the 50/50 Senate, and very few are genuinely up for grabs. Johnson’s seat is one of those. The governor’s race, likewise, will make a big difference on policy matters, including how future elections are run.

Wisconsin is critical, said Jacobson. “And it’s a state which has historically been very narrowly divided. It makes sense, if you spend money somewhere, you get a lot of bang for your buck in Wisconsin.”


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.