Many political observers see the Wisconsin governor’s race as a proxy war between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.
“If November is a referendum on Biden, the Republicans win. If it’s a referendum on Trump, the Democrats win,” said JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics, citing the conventional wisdom expressed by political consultants in 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 try to tie Michels to Trump, who could quickly become a liability for the GOP challenger.
Trump endorsed the winner of the Republican primary for governor, Tim Michels. The loser, whom Michels called 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 some distance between himself and Trump. After appearing with Trump at a rally last Friday and touting the former president’s endorsement during the primaries, he suddenly switched gears after his victory on Tuesday, cutting a ad attacking Evers and Biden who doesn’t mention Trump at all. He changed what he described as his “No. 1 priority” from “election integrity,” his maxim focus during the primaries, to “stand up for the working people of Wisconsin,” as he said in his victory speech. He also surreptitiously removed a prominent mention of Trump’s endorsement from his campaign website (later restored after New York Times political reporter Reid Esptein). he pointed it out.
“Trump owns it”
Evers mocked Michels the day after the primaries, telling reporters at a campaign stop, “Trump is the owner, he is the owner of Trump,” and to point out that the construction company owner who presents himself as a champion of working people is a bit of a stretch for a candidate who has a $17 million house in Connecticut.
Like other Republicans running in 2024, Michels is focusing on inflation and gas prices, blaming Biden and, by extension, Evers, for those two problems.
In the governor’s race, however, national politics may not actually 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 of federal office holders, Jacobson noted during the WisPolitics panel.
“At a time when Biden is at 39% approval, Trump is at 39% approval, the Supreme Court is down, Congress is down … all but three or four governors had had the their approval ratings above water, and how three-quarters of them were down. more than double digits above water,” Jacobson said. (Evers approval rating in June Marquette University School of Law The poll was 48 percent, compared to Biden’s 40 percent.) Governor’s races are different from national races, Jacobson said, where, especially in midterm elections, voters tend to be in a opposite mood to the holder. “So I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a trend in favor of the incumbent,” he added, “at least for governors.”
That could be good news for Democrats, who are defending a sitting governor as they race against two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson.
But don’t count on Johnson, panel members warned. Although his re-election run was 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, Jessie Opoien said , Capitol Bureau Chief for The Capital Times and Emilee Fannon, Capitol Reporter for CBS 58 Milwaukee.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who emerged from a primary in which his three main opponents folded their tents and endorsed him in recent weeks, could suffer if he wasn’t tested earlier, Ross said. Johnson is already trying to paint him as an out-of-touch leftist who once posed for a photo in a T-shirt that said “Abolish ICE.” It might have helped him avoid those inevitable attacks earlier, Ross suggested. (Barnes, who wore the shirt at an immigrant rights rally to protest the Trump administration’s family separation policy, he told the examiner that while he is a strong advocate of more humane immigration policies, he is not in favor of abolishing ICE.)
Barnes comes from a working-class union family and would be the first black senator elected from Wisconsin. So far, Fannon and Opoien said he has done a good job of deflecting the attacks by refocusing on his inspiring personal story and building a warm connection with voters.
This is true both on economic issues, where Barnes convincingly argues that his family background has given him insight into the problems and aspirations of working families in Wisconsin, and on the issue of abortion. Her mother appears in a campaign ad to tell the story of the pregnancy complications that led to her having an abortion before she was born. “It’s personal,” Barnes says of the subject.
Abortion and voters
Abortion is a big motivator in the fall election, all WisPolitics panelists agreed. In Wisconsin, where an 1849 ban on abortion without exceptions makes the procedure a crime, women in particular are highly motivated to vote on the issue.
“There are a lot of women who are telling their stories for the first time,” Fannon said. “And I think when they go to coffee, they go to lunch, even in my conversations, people talk about really difficult times that they went through, maybe personally needing an abortion or having something happen and having to have an abortion medical if it was an emergency.”
“I think among women certainly Democrats and probably some more moderate [Republican] women is more of a motivating factor than for men,” Opoien said.
Both Fannon and Opoien said they’ve heard of women of all ages getting involved in politics this year because they’re concerned about access to abortion.
Across the country, in battleground states, “the rubber is really hitting the road for voters,” Jacobson said. “If you care about abortion rights, now is the time to get active. And nowhere is that more true, with the possible exception of Michigan, perhaps, than the state of Wisconsin.”
Support for Republican candidates has softened among suburban women, in particular, who are not fans of anti-abortion politics or Donald Trump. Johnson has been lose support among suburban women for years, as he has embraced Trump and Wisconsin’s no-exceptions abortion ban.
But in the gubernatorial primary, Michels showed it was possible to lose the suburbs and win the state’s Republican vote with a large turnout in rural areas. Michels “broke with Republican history and won without winning the Milwaukee suburbs,” Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. reports. “Michels won his largest margins in the ‘Trumpiest’ parts of Wisconsin, winning small rural counties by 20, 30 and 40 points,” writes Gilbert. He notes that Kleefisch won suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties by a single single digit, while Michels won big 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 split in this highly divisive primary fight,” Gilbert writes, “because Wisconsin’s smaller counties spoke with a more unified voice, and because the center of gravity of the GOP has changed. a rural direction”.
This phenomenon is part of it 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 support of both former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and powerful Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, but the Trump-endorsed challenger of Vos gave the de facto leader of the Republican state. party a run for its money. Vos overcame the challenge and won his primary by just 260 votes, a result that Opoien called “shocking.”
Opoien and Fannon noted that Vos was particularly vulnerable to attack because the movement to demand the decertification of Wisconsin’s 2020 electoral vote, which Vos accurately said was impossible, earning Trump’s undying wrath, was was based in Vos’ home district in southeastern Wisconsin. Another reason for the strength of the insurgent campaign against him, both reporters said, could be a general anti-establishment mood among Republican voters, who felt not only that Vos should have done more to overturn the election results, but also could have achieved. more so when Walker was governor and Republicans held the legislative and executive branches of state government.
The same sentiment may have hurt Walker’s former lieutenant, Kleefisch. “People are tired of the same old and that’s what I heard from Michel’s campaign supporters,” Fannon said.
All the panelists agreed that neither the revelations from the Jan. 6 committee hearings nor the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence are likely to change the minds of voters, whose views about Trump have already solidified, though the backlash against the FBI’s arrival at Mar-a-Lago may have inflamed Trump supporters even more.
But Jacobson outlined a scenario in which Republicans could begin to disengage from the former president: “I think the 30,000-foot view is that the majority of Americans have made up their minds about Trump and nothing is going to sway them from that.” , he said. said “The closer view, the 1,000-foot view, would be that maybe it’s not going to make a lot of Republicans suddenly say, ‘OK, after five or six years now, I actually don’t like Trump,'” it’s more ‘a question of “OK, given the party’s need to look to 2024, is Trump our best shot?”‘. What Jacobson called “the gentle erosion” of Trump’s support, as people consider whether another candidate might have a better shot, is the most likely scenario for Republicans to finally advance.
But, he warned, “It’s going to take a critical mass and it’s going to take the leadership of the party to go over 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 there will be a lot of money in the fall election here. All the seats are important in the 50/50 Senate, and very few are actually up for grabs. Johnson’s seat is one of these. The governor’s race, likewise, will make a big difference in political matters, including how future elections are conducted.
Wisconsin is critical, Jacobson said. “And it is a state that has historically been very divided. It makes sense, if you spend money somewhere, you’re going to have a lot of money in Wisconsin.”
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