MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Tim Michels, a wealthy businessman backed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican primary for governor of Wisconsin on Tuesday and will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a contest that could reshape the election on the battleground of fame.
Michels defeated former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who was backed by former Vice President Mike Pence and had the backing of establishment Republicans, including the ex-governor. Scott Walker.
In his concession speech, Kleefisch said, “The fight now is really against Tony Evers and the liberals who want to take our way of life away from us.”
Both Michels and Kleefisch falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged, a lie Trump pushed in an effort to undo his loss to Joe Biden. Michels said decertifying the results of the 2020 contest was not a priority, but said “everything will be on the table.” He supports other changes to voting and elections, including dismantling the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin’s elections.
The governor’s race was the latest proxy war between Trump and Pence, one-off partners who have backed opposing candidates in other swing states as they try to nudge the GOP in different directions.
The primary comes a day after FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified White House files to his Florida residence , two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
In the Democratic Senate primary, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes won the nomination to face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, after Barnes’ main rivals pulled out of the race at the end of last month. The game is among the last to be staged before November’s general election, when control of the Senate currently split 50-50 is up for grabs, and Democrats view Wisconsin as one of their best opportunities to overturn a seat.
Wisconsin’s most powerful Republican, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also faced a Trump-backed challenger. Trump endorsed Adam Steen after Vos rejected the former president’s push to decertify the 2020 results.
Tuesday’s results have far-reaching implications beyond Wisconsin, a state nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and where 2022 will be seen as a predictor for the 2024 presidential race. Whoever elected governor this fall will serve for the presidential election and will be able to sign or veto changes to election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The next U.S. governor and senator can also influence decisions on issues ranging from abortion to education and taxes.
“We’re a 50-50 state and so every race in Wisconsin, by definition, is going to be decided by a few percentage points one way or another,” said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. . “And those few percentage points in Wisconsin may well set the course of the nation for years to come.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, a Trump-backed candidate won the GOP primary for Senate in Connecticut, a state that has long been home to the Republican establishment. Republican National Committee member Leora Levy, whom Trump endorsed last week, will face Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal for two terms after defeating former State House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who had the support of the State party. Voters in Vermont — the only state to never have had a woman in its congressional delegation — chose a woman, Becca Balint, as the Democratic candidate for the state’s only House seat. She is favored in the race to replace Rep. Peter Welch, who won the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat long held by retiring Patrick Leahy. And Minnesota Republicans picked Dr. Scott Jensen, a skeptic of the state’s GOP-endorsed COVID-19 vaccine, to face Gov. Tim Walz.
But the most-watched races were in Wisconsin, where Trump maintained his push campaign to reverse President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Biden won nearly 21,000 votes, four years after Trump also won narrowly state with roughly the same margin. The 2020 result was upheld in two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple lawsuits.
Evers has put voting and elections at the center of his own campaign, telling voters he is the only candidate who will stand up for democracy and “we are about to not count our votes in the state of Wisconsin.”
Michels and Kleefisch said nullifying the 2020 election results was not a priority. But they said they would dismantle the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin’s election and support a ban on voters asking anyone else to deliver their mail-in ballots, as well as ballot boxes located anywhere other than in staffed clerk’s offices.
Michels is co-owner of Wisconsin’s largest construction company and has touted his work building the family business. He lost the 2004 Senate race to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and was a major donor to GOP politicians.
At a rally on Friday, Trump hailed Michels as an “incredible achievement.” He criticized Kleefisch as part of the “failed establishment” and also took aim at Vos. He told the fans that Michels was the best choice to defeat Evers.
Michels promised that “we’re going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin.” He also said he would bring “law and order” back to Wisconsin, criticized Evers’ handling of schools and blamed Biden for the price hikes.
GOP state Rep. Tim Ramthun also made a long-running bid for governor.
Barnes, in his victory speech in Milwaukee, highlighted his middle-class background and upbringing while portraying Johnson as “selfish” and “a disconnected politician” who only cares about special interests and wealthy donors.
“It’s time for a change, everyone,” said Barnes, who would be Wisconsin’s first black senator if elected. “It’s time for us to be represented by someone who shares our experiences.”
Johnson called Barnes the “most radical left-wing candidate” Democrats could have chosen.
“This is a competition between radical left socialism against freedom and prosperity,” he said.