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MADISON - Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch is escalating her criticism of how the last presidential election was carried out in Wisconsin, calling it a "rigged" contest despite court rulings and recounts confirming the outcome.
The characterization comes as a fourth candidate enters the Republican primary with the ability to pour millions into his campaign and a backstory that could appeal to the head of the party, former President Donald Trump.
Seventeen months after the 2020 election, grievances over its outcome loom over Wisconsin's 2022 races as Trump continues to pressure Republicans to keep alive his false claims of widespread fraud to build momentum for his expected 2024 campaign for president.
Recounts, court rulings, state audits and a study by a prominent conservative group have confirmed President Joe Biden won Wisconsin in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes. None of the reviews have shown fraud manipulated the outcome of the election.
Kleefisch on Tuesday compared decisions made by Wisconsin election officials to navigate the coronavirus pandemic to those of NFL quarterback Tom Brady in 2015 when he was accused of using deflated footballs to gain an advantage for the New England Patriots in a playoff game.
"I often compare this to deflategate," Kleefisch said in a Tuesday interview on WTAQ.
"They won the game. Did they win legitimately? Did they replay the game? These are the questions that we are facing right now on the highest level of governance," she said.
"I can't honestly tell you results in Pennsylvania and in Arizona and other states where there are questions. I am focused exclusively on Wisconsin. And what I can tell you about Wisconsin, is that I feel like it was rigged."
She cited election officials' decisions to use ballot drop boxes, send absentee ballots to residents of nursing homes that were not allowing poll workers in to help with voting, and to accept funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to administer the election.
Kleefisch said candidates who don't address the 2020 election should be disqualified in voters' minds, referring to Tim Michels, a wealthy construction executive from Waukesha County who entered the race last week.
Michels held a rally Monday to launch his campaign for governor and did not mention the last presidential election in his nine-minute speech.
But Michels said in an interview earlier Monday that he has "questions" about the 2020 election and would sign into law legislation Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers vetoed earlier this year that would change how elections are administered in Wisconsin. He did not immediately have a reaction to Kleefisch's comments.
“A lot of people have questions about the last election. So do I,” Michels said Monday on WISN-AM. “If we don't have fair, transparent elections, our whole system is going to come apart.”
Kayla Anderson, a campaign spokeswoman for Evers, said Kleefisch's comments are injecting "more chaos and division into Wisconsin elections."
"We don’t need to waste more time and taxpayer money on this politically motivated exercise," Anderson said in a statement. "Governor Evers plans to continue doing the right thing and fighting to ensure every eligible voter is able to participate in safe, fair and secure elections.”
A spokesman for Kleefisch did not immediately answer questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Trump successfully pressured Assembly Speaker Robin Vos this week into keeping open a taxpayer-funded review of the 2020 election overseen by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.
The review has a budget of $676,000 and has lasted six months longer than originally planned as Gableman has missed deadlines to produce a final report into his probe.
So far, Gableman's reports to Assembly lawmakers largely include details of how the 2020 election was administered that were already uncovered by others. In another case, he reported incorrect nursing home voter turnout data to allege suspicions of fraud inside the facilities.
Despite being funded by taxpayers, the review has not been transparent. A Dane County judge recently ordered Gableman to stop deleting records related to his review as part of a lawsuit brought by a liberal group alleging Gableman has withheld requested records.
Gableman argued he could delete records he deemed to be "irrelevant" or "useless" to his effort. State law bars this practice, however.
Kleefisch said Tuesday that Gableman's probe should continue.
"I also had a really long talk with Gableman over the weekend, and he is still uncovering things and I think those subpoenas will be useful to identifying new things or perhaps even solidifying other things that we've already covered in greater volume," Kleefisch said.
Gableman has issued dozens of wide-ranging subpoenas and asked a judge to jail elections officials, mayors and others who he claims aren’t cooperating with him. The targets of his subpoenas have said they are following the law and asked the judge to find Gableman must interview them in public and not behind closed doors, as Gableman wants.
"If for no other reason, then to assure that people feel that their vote is going to count and we are no longer jeopardizing our democratic republic by disenfranchising voters, that I think it must continue," Kleefisch said.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: With no evidence, Kleefisch calls 2020 presidential election 'rigged'