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Trump and Pence choose sides in the contentious GOP primary for Wisconsin governor

From left, Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun (not pictured) participate in a televised debate for the GOP nomination for Wisconsin governor on July 24, 2022, in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash
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AP
From left, Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun (not pictured) participate in a televised debate for the GOP nomination for Wisconsin governor on July 24, 2022, in Milwaukee.

Updated August 9, 2022 at 6:53 PM ET

MADISON, Wis. – Tuesday, former President Donald Trump's influence over GOP swing state voters will again be tested. This time in Wisconsin where the former president has endorsed candidates that pit him squarely against the establishment of the Republican Party.

In the primary for Wisconsin governor, Trump endorsed construction executive Tim Michels over Rebecca Kleefisch, who was lieutenant governor under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker for eight years. Walker has campaigned aggressively for Kleefisch, who is also supported by former Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump's endorsement of Michels in early June upended the race for governor, giving his campaign a jolt roughly a month after he entered the race. Michels spent millions of dollars of his own money on a TV ad blitz, painting himself as a businessman and "outsider" who wants to turn government upside down, echoing messages used by Trump in his 2016 run for the presidency.

Trump also backed Republican Adam Steen in his primary campaign against Robin Vos, the powerful speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly who angered Trump because of his refusal to try to overturn President Joe Biden's 2020 victory in the state, a move election law experts say is legally impossible.

Trump's risky endorsements

Trump victories in both races could help him lay claim to the Wisconsin GOP ahead of his assumed presidential campaign in 2024. But Anthony Chergosky, a political scientist with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says both of Trump's candidates could very plausibly lose.

"I wonder if Donald Trump fully understands what he's getting into," Chergosky says.

Michels hasn't gone as far as Trump when it comes to the way he describes the 2020 presidential election, but he has cast doubt on Biden's victory in Wisconsin, which was affirmed by a statewide canvas, a partial recount and multiple state and federal court decisions. When asked at a recent debate whether he'd sign legislation that would "decertify" Biden's 2020 victory in Wisconsin, Michels kept his options open.

"Everything'll be on the table," Michels said. "I'll make the right decision."

Kleefisch, who has said the 2020 election was "rigged," has nevertheless been the only GOP candidate for governor in Wisconsin who has rejected the idea that the outcome of the race could be overturned.

"It's not constitutionally possible," Kleefisch said at the same debate. "There is no path to decertifying an election that has already happened."

Other factors reportedly weighed into Trump's endorsement decision. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Trump was angered by a picture Kleefisch posted on Twitter of her teenage daughter going to homecoming with the son of a state Supreme Court justice who ruled against Trump in multiple election lawsuits nearly two years ago.

Trump's push to overturn the election has certainly been front-and-center in his decision to endorse Steen, a political unknown until recently, over Vos, the legislature's most powerful Republican who has set the GOP agenda in Wisconsin for more than a decade.

"Adam Steen is running to defeat your RINO speaker of the house, Robin Vos," Trump said at a Friday rally in Waukesha, Wis., referring to the acronym for "Republican In Name Only."

Chergosky says the races are broadly reflective of the battle for power within the GOP, both in Wisconsin and nationally. "You've got sort of the early 2010s version of the Republican Party on one side, and you've got the Donald Trump version of the Republican Party on the other side."

The primary also showcases a geographic divide, Chergosky says, in the GOP between the suburbs — where Kleefisch draws her strongest support — and rural areas that have been key to the Trump coalition.

Facing Evers in November

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers awaits to address the virtual Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center on August 19, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wis. Evers is running for reelection in 2022.
Melina Mara / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers awaits to address the virtual Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center on Aug. 19, 2020, in Milwaukee, Wis. Evers is running for reelection in 2022.

The winner will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November in a race that public polling and recent Wisconsin history suggest will be close. Evers defeated Walker by a little more than a percentage point in 2018 and has spent the bulk of the past four years at odds with Republicans who have large majorities in the state legislature, vetoing more bills in a single session than any governor in Wisconsin history.

When Trump visited Wisconsin last week, Evers' campaign issued a statement that attacked both Michels and Kleefisch, yet another sign that the race could go either way.

"Every candidate in the Republican primary is too extreme for our state, and would sign into law dangerous bills that would undermine our democracy," said Evers campaign spokesman Sam Roecker. "Gov. Evers is focused on doing the right thing for our state and bringing people together to solve real problems."

Copyright 2022 Wisconsin Public Radio

Shawn Johnson
Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.