Wisconsin gubernatorial primary features another Trump-Pence proxy battle

·7 min read

For the third time, a candidate backed by former president Donald Trump squares off against one backed by former Vice President Mike Pence, this time, in Wisconsin. And Vermont may be on its way to a history-making moment, as four states hold primaries Tuesday: Wisconsin, Connecticut, Vermont and Minnesota.

Here are some of the main races to watch:

Wisconsin

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels speaks to residents during a campaign stop on August 6, 2022 in Chilton, Wisconsin.  / Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images
Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels speaks to residents during a campaign stop on August 6, 2022 in Chilton, Wisconsin. / Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Republican primary for governor in Wisconsin is the latest proxy battle between Trump and Pence, both of whom could run for president in 2024. The primary has also divided Republicans in the state over one issue: whether President Biden's win in 2020 can be "decertified."

Trump has backed Tim Michels, the owner of a construction company who's put close to $12 million into his own campaign. Pence, along with former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, endorsed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on August 7, 2022 in Delafield, Wisconsin.  / Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images
Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on August 7, 2022 in Delafield, Wisconsin. / Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

Another candidate, Wisconsin Assemblyman Tim Ramthun, has been trailing Kleefisch and Michels in polling but led in pushing for the decertification of Mr. Biden's victory.

The president won the state by about 21,000 votes in 2020, but Trump and his allies have repeatedly called for state legislators to "decertify" or invalidate the results over a year and a half after Mr. Biden's inauguration. They've been especially emboldened after Wisconsin's Supreme Court ruled that dropboxes for absentee ballots are illegal.

"So do you know what that means? That means they were obviously illegal in the 2020 election. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of votes," Trump said during a rally for Michels in Waukesha on Friday.

At the rally, Michels reiterated that he would dissolve the state's elections commission, which Kleefisch also supports.

"I am going to get election integrity back in Wisconsin. We are going to stop the 'Zuckerbucks,' out-of-state billionaires coming into our state and taking control of our election process. It won't happen anymore," he said.

"We should not be having this conversation 21 months after the election. Was it rigged? Was it fixed? I'm going to stop it," he added.

Michels, who received Trump's endorsement in June, said in one debate that decertification is not a top priority. In a debate after, he kept the door open and said that "everything will be on the table."

Decertifying the 2020 results in Wisconsin is not legally possible. There is no path to do so in state or federal law, which Kleefisch has repeated during debates and on the campaign trail.

Still, it's a point of difference between her and Michels, who both cast doubt on the 2020 election results and are in a tight matchup to take on Democratic incumbent Governor Tony Evers this November. An Emerson College poll days before the primary had Kleefisch up two points on Michels, within the margin of error.

Also notable — while 39% of respondents said Trump's endorsement factors into their decision, 49% said it did not.

When asked at a town hall on if they would support Trump if he runs in 2024, neither Kleefisch nor Michels would commit to doing so. "I'm focused on this election right now. I have made no commitments to any candidates in 2024," Michels said.

But later at the Waukesha rally, Michels said that he would support a third run for Trump.

Almost $30 million has been spent on advertisements in the Republican primary, according to data from AdImpact. Michels' campaign is the top spender, with over $10 million spent, followed by Evers and Kleefisch with over $5 million a piece.

The primary in Wisconsin will be the third time that Trump and Pence have split on gubernatorial candidates  this primary season. In Georgia, Pence backed incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who won decisively. And Trump's endorsed candidate Kari Lake was declared the winner last Thursday in Arizona over the Pence-backed Karrin Taylor Robson.

There are a handful of candidates the two agree on. Both have endorsed the same gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas — Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was White House press secretary — and in New York, where Rep. Lee Zeldin is running for governor.

When asked after a law enforcement roundtable in Wisconsin with Pence if the dueling endorsements could answer who leads the Republican Party, Kleefisch responded, "This is the Republican party of the people."

"It forever will be. And I'm proud to be a Wisconsin Republican," she told reporters after the event.

Decertification of the last presidential election has been a frequent topic in the race for Wisconsin's 63rd Legislative District.

In that race, Trump is backing Adam Steen, who is challenging Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican who ordered an investigation of alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election. That investigation found "absolutely no evidence of election fraud."

Trump has targeted Vos simply because he will not decertify Mr. Biden's win in the state. Steen has said he would support legislation that would allow the decertification of Wisconsin's elections.

Wisconsin is also a Senate battleground state where GOP incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson will likely face off against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a progressive who effectively won his Democratic Senate primary when his top three opponents all dropped out of the race and endorsed him.

Connecticut

Trump announced last week he would endorse Leora Levy in the Connecticut Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

"I'm giving tonight my complete and total endorsement to Leora Levy, and she's going to go out and win this primary," Trump said. Levy and another candidate, Peter Lumaj, have been Trump loyalists on the campaign trail. Levy was also Trump's pick for ambassador to Chile, although she was never confirmed by the Senate.

Themis Klarides, a centrist Republican who has been backed by most of the GOP establishment in the state, has previously said he did not vote for Trump in 2020. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a notable anti-Trump Republican, held a fundraiser for her in July. In a 2016 Greenwich Time opinion piece, Levy once described Trump as "vulgar, ill-mannered and disparages those whom he cannot intimidate."

Whoever wins will have an uphill climb against popular Democratic incumbent Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who has been a frequent target of Trump and his allies.

Vermont

Four women in total (two Democrats, two Republicans) are running for Vermont's lone congressional seat, left open by Democratic Rep. Peter Welch. If one of them wins in November, Vermont will for the first time have elected a woman to Congress. Women make up a slight majority in Vermont. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and teacher and progressive activist Becca Balint are the leading candidates. The last poll on the race was from Data for Progress, a progressive leaning firm, and showed Balint with a 32-point lead.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has backed Balint, while retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy said he has already voted for Gray. On the Republican side, accountant Ericka Redic and Anya Tynio. Meanwhile, Welch is running to fill Leahy's Vermont seat. He leads the Democratic primary field against two candidates: physician Niki Thran and activist Isaac Evans-Frantz.

Minnesota

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota's 5th District, faces four primary challengers. Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels leads the rest of the field, though Omar has doubled him in fundraising this election cycle. Omar is the latest member of the "squad" of progressive House Democrats to face primary challengers this cycle — in Missouri's 1st District, Rep. Cori Bush easily won her primary by over 40 points.

Ilhan Omar and Don Samuels / Credit: CBS
Ilhan Omar and Don Samuels / Credit: CBS

There is also a special general election to fill the rest of GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn's term. Hagedorn died of cancer in February.

The seat leans Republican, but in the special election, turnout may be strong for Democratic candidate Jeff Ettinger. A recent poll by SuveryUSA/ABC6 showed Republican candidate Brad Finstad up by eight points. Trump won the district by 10 points.

The last notable House special election for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's seat in Nebraska's 1st District was much closer than national Republicans were expecting, in part due to backlash from Democrats in the immediate wake of the Dobbs decision. In that race, Democratic candidate Patty Pansing Brooks lost to Republican Mike Flood by just under 7 points. Trump won the district by 15 points.

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