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Wisconsin GOP: For Governor, Which Delusional Person Do You Prefer?

No matter who wins the Republican primary, Democrat Tony Evers will face an election-denying, culture-warring edgelord this fall.
July 20, 2022
Wisconsin GOP: For Governor, Which Delusional Person Do You Prefer?
Rebecca Kleefisch on November 7, 2018 in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Call it an embarrassment of riches.

Republicans in Wisconsin looking to take the state back a century or two while embracing the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the last election simply cannot go wrong. All three of the major GOP candidates vying in the state’s August 9 primary for the right to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November have staked out fervently regressive, delusional, and extreme positions.

The contenders are: Rebecca Kleefisch, formerly Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, who together with Gov. Scott Walker helped bring about nearly Civil War-levels of division among the state’s populace; Tim Michels, a fabulously wealthy businessman with homes in several states, including a $17 million mansion in Connecticut; and Tim Ramthun, a state representative so extreme he was introduced without complaint at a recent GOP event as “radical Tim Ramthun.”

All have identified election integrity as one of their top priorities and suggested that the 2020 election, in which Joe Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes, was somehow corrupt. This even though a recount, a ruling by the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court, and a review by the ultra-right Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty all found no evidence of significant fraud.

“I’m deeply concerned about the integrity of our elections,” declares Kleefisch on her website. “That’s why I’m the only candidate for governor who has sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission.”

She’s right. A little over a year after the election that didn’t go Trump’s way, Kleefisch sued the bipartisan commission, seeking to undermine its rule-making authority. The state Supreme Court declined to take the case, although it did recently rule that the use of ballot drop boxes, an uncontested feature of Wisconsin elections for many years, must be discontinued, as she had urged.

Justice Rebecca Bradley, writing for the 4-3 majority in the drop boxes case, likened their use to crooked election practices in Iraq, North Korea, and Cuba. This drew an editorial rebuke from the Wisconsin State Journal, which opined that “Trump’s outrageous behavior in trying to reverse a legitimate election and the will of the people draws a much closer comparison to dictatorships than any of Wisconsin’s careful election procedures.”

But no matter. The Republicans running for Wisconsin governor are shocked—shocked—by the overwhelming evidence of egregious electoral misconduct that they have made up to please their party’s leader.

To this end, candidate Michels, the recipient of Trump’s coveted endorsement, has pledged to fire the entire elections commission and repeal “all previous WEC election guidance” while “freezing the issuance of new guidance,” among other fixes to a nonexistent problem. (As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Molly Beck notes, Michels’s plan would leave “Wisconsin clerks administering the February 2023 primary election [with] no guidance” at all.)

And Michels has left open the possibility that he would consider overturning the results of the state’s 2020 election, a move that Beck helpfully described as “an illegal and impossible endeavor that has been promoted by Trump despite it being impracticable.”

“You know, I have to work with the legislature and see what these bills look like,” Michels said when asked about this impossibility. “As a businessman, I just don’t say that I’ll do this or I’ll do that. It’s always about the details.”

Radical Tim Ramthun is not so wishy-washy. Should he be elected, he would do everything in his imaginary power to “reclaim Wisconsin’s 10 electoral ballots” for Trump,” as he put it at a recent press conference. For him, it is simply a matter of right and wrong.

“If you want to say that it’s okay to condone doing something wrong and illegal, just because,” Ramthun said in his halting, inarticulate style. “Where’s the line there? We’ve got to follow the rule of law.”

Or, as Ramthun said at an event in June, “When election integrity doesn’t happen, and nefarious acts and illegal acts result in [the] wrong people being in seats, you’ve got problems like we have now in our society. It’s a big deal.”

Ramthun bears the rare distinction of being so unhinged that even some of his fellow Republicans have turned against him. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who in order to appease Trump ordered up a $1-million-and-counting review of the 2020 election, yanked Ramthun’s single staff person after he falsely accused Vos of signing a pact with Hillary Clinton to authorize voting drop boxes.

Vos, despite this acquiescence, is once again in hot water with Trump for not moving to overturn the election results, even now that the state Supreme Court has disallowed the use of drop boxes for no good reason. “What a waste of a brilliant and courageous decision by Wisconsin’s Highest Court,” Trump wrote in a post on his troubled social media platform, Truth Social. “The Democrats would like to sincerely thank Robin, and all his fellow RINOs, for letting them get away with ‘murder.’ A Rigged & Stolen Election!”

Vos issued a statement agreeing that the court’s ruling “was a courageous decision” while insisting that “legal scholars” have sadly determined “there is no way to reclaim electors and overturn the election.” Instead, he said his focus would be on electing a Republican governor—any of the three main contenders will do—to end Evers’s running streak of vetoes of “the 22 election reform bills we’ve passed” to make voting for Democrats more difficult.

“The Assembly will take these bills up again first thing next legislative session,” Vos promised.

There are other big contests on Wisconsin’s August 9 primary ballot, including races to pick the GOP nominee for attorney general and secretary of state. Here, too, the voters have ample opportunity to vote for extremists. These include Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, a candidate for attorney general who has used his office to criminally prosecute five hapless voters, including one who voted for Trump and now says she’ll likely never vote again, for unwittingly breaking state law by using a UPS Store as their voting address, as have dozens of other voters throughout the state. And secretary of state wannabe Jay Schroeder has vowed to refuse to sign and affix a seal to the document certifying any presidential election results with which he may disagree.

But it’s the race for governor that matters most, because the only thing that now prevents the state from adopting a raft of election rules meant to favor Republicans and help Trump “win” Wisconsin in 2024 is the veto power of that office.

Evers is also the only thing that complicates the wholesale enforcement of the state’s 1849 law outlawing abortions except to save the life of the mother—and the ongoing efforts to get rid of this intolerable exception.

All three top GOP candidates for governor have vowed to fire any district attorney or sheriff who refuses to enforce the state’s 1849 ban on abortion; the Dobbs decision overturning Roe brought the nineteenth-century law back into force, which has led to a statewide shutdown of legal abortion. (The DAs in Milwaukee and Dane County have said they will not prosecute violators, and Evers has promised to grant clemency to anyone in the state convicted of a crime for performing an abortion—a pledge seen as insufficient for abortion providers to risk prosecution.) And all three candidates are opposed to exceptions to allow for abortions in cases of rape and incest.

“I would see no change and I would be happy that we would be protecting the unborn,” Kleefisch said when asked if she would support these exemptions. In 2010, she posted her agreement with a political candidate who chirped that forcing a hypothetical young girl to give birth after being raped by her father “was really a lemon situation into lemonade.”

Ramthun has also rejected the notion that victims of rape or incest should be legally able to terminate a pregnancy, asserting: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is allowed and affordable to the child of the womb who the Lord knew before it was there. It’s not our place to mess with the Lord’s will; I don’t care how the conception occurred.”

Michels, asked by an attendee at a recent campaign event in Calumet County whether he would support a ban on “abortion pills that are being passed off as contraception,” replied:

I believe that God is unhappy with a country that allows for the killing of babies. . . . I think there’s two victims of an abortion: There’s the baby whose life was just taken away, and the mother, or the would-have-been mother, who’s going to carry that emotional baggage with her the rest of her life. I’m pro-life because of my faith, and I will not apologize for it.

Pressed again about access to “these pills,” Michels stated: “They’ll be illegal in Wisconsin.” He later walked that back, returning to his earlier position that he, like Kleefisch, is not opposed to the use of the Plan B pill, saying, “I am against abortion, I am not against contraception.”

In other instances, Michels has renounced efforts to connect him to positions that might offend the pro-Trump base. For instance, he insists he somehow had nothing to do with and does not support the opposition of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association to an anti-immigrant bill in the 2007–08 legislative session, during which he headed the lobby group’s board of directors. The bill, which died in committee, would have barred companies that employ “illegal aliens” from getting government contracts and other perks.

Michels is now running ads harping about illegal immigration, the source of a labor pool on which the state’s dairy industry depends. “No driver’s license, no benefits, and no tuition,” one ad says. He also disavows the positions taken by this association and another group with which he has long been affiliated in support of higher gas taxes, saying he now supports a gas-tax holiday.

How convenient.

On most issues, there is no mistaking the antipathy of the Wisconsin GOP’s gubernatorial candidates toward proposals that smack of runaway liberalism—like trying to do something about the national epidemic of gun violence.

“Tony Evers is so radical he considered confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens,” Kleefisch screams on her website. “He called a special session of the Legislature to threaten law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Law-abiding citizens owning a gun aren’t causing crime, Evers’ liberal anti-cop policies are.”

The radical gun-confiscation measure to which Kleefisch refers is Evers’s 2019 comment that he would consider requiring assault gun owners to sell their weapons of war to the government. He ordered the special session that same year to take up bills requiring universal background checks and allowing guns to be taken from people deemed by a judge to pose a danger to themselves or others. The leaders of the state’s GOP-controlled legislature gaveled the session to a close seconds after it began.

Both Kleefisch and Ramthun (“I’m a Second Amendment guy—absolutely”) oppose any expansion of background checks and support letting state residents carry concealed weapons without going through the fuss and bother of obtaining a license that requires training. Michels has been more coy, declining to state a position on background checks while digging into the GOP’s grab bag of reasons for gun violence that don’t include easy access to guns.

“We have so much [sic] mental health disorders that are going unchecked,” Michels said. “That’s the root of the problem. No gun has ever jumped up by itself and shot somebody.” He also blamed the Black Lives Matter movement. “Before we had the defund the police movement and BLM, people had a lot of respect for law enforcement.” But now, “the bad guys feel like they can get away with this stuff.”

Michels, whose website mentions guns only in the context of hiking penalties for felons caught possessing them, has just found himself in another walkback, reissuing a flyer that falsely claimed he’s been endorsed by the NRA. In fact, the new version clarified, he received an “AQ” grade on an NRA questionnaire, meaning that he answered questions to the group’s satisfaction.

In newly filed campaign finance reports, Michels leads the trio with about $8 million raised over the last six month, almost all of it his own money. Kleefisch, meanwhile, raised about $3.7 million during this time, while Ramthun brought in about $173,000. Ramthun, as usual, found a way to distinguish himself, reporting a $70.96 expenditure at a Hooters in Madison, which he itemized as being for “gas.” The restaurant actually does not sell petroleum.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.