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Trump-backed candidate wins GOP nod for Wisconsin governor

Midterm elections in the Upper Midwest battleground could have broad implications for partisan control of state government and Congress in 2022.

MILWAUKEE (CN) — A relative political outsider backed by former President Donald Trump beat a denizen of Wisconsin's Republican establishment in the GOP primary for the state's governorship on Tuesday.

At around 10:40 p.m. Central Time, Decision Desk HQ called the governor primary for Tim Michels, an Army veteran who co-owns Wisconsin's largest construction company and has never held public office. He bested Rebecca Kleefisch, who served eight years as lieutenant governor under former Republican Governor Scott Walker.

When the race was called, Decision Desk reported that Michels had tallied 262,429 votes, or about 47% of total votes counted, beating Kleefisch by just under 26,000 votes, or around five percentage points.

Michels is now the Republican who will face current Governor Tony Evers in one of a set of closely watched and highly consequential midterm elections in the Badger State on Nov. 8.

In Wisconsin's other primetime race on Tuesday, current Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes was declared the early winner of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate by a landslide with more than 80% of the vote about 45 minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m. The result was altogether expected, as the other three main contenders dropped out of the contest and backed him within five days of each other in late July.

Barnes will square off against current two-term Senator Ron Johnson, which early polls have predicted to be an exceedingly close race.

Also on Tuesday, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fended off an unusually bothersome challenger for his Assembly seat in Adam Steen, a near-unknown who Trump endorsed late in large part because Vos has repeatedly rebuffed Trump's demands to do more to overturn the state's 2020 election results. Vos won the primary by around a 51-48% margin, amounting to 260 votes.

This primary season in Wisconsin, as compared to past contests, had a bit more juice — and a bit more venom — than usual, and some voters noticed.

At the polls at South Shore Park in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, a 46-year-old voter named Cesar, who works as a medical sales rep and has lived in the United States since he was five but recently became a citizen, said he feels “a duty to be part of every election” as an American. He’s a little tired, however, of the attack ads recently dominating the discourse.

“We all talk about standing together, and it’s frustrating to see all the mud-slinging,” he said. Cesar voted the Democratic ticket— Wisconsin’s open primaries allow voters to choose which party’s candidates they want to elect without registering with the party — but he conceded the same negative tactics occur on both sides of the aisle.

A good source for attack ads was the GOP race to see who will try to unseat Governor Tony Evers in November, a contest that highlighted divisions of alliance and style between Republicans vying to beat a vulnerable Democrat in a critical purple battleground.

Kleefisch’s campaign connected her to the Walker administration’s highest profile moves, including most prominently the passage of Act 10, a 2011 law that gutted the collective bargaining power of most public sector unions and sparked massive protests from what Kleefisch has called “the liberal mob.”

Michels, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, ran a campaign based on his business acumen and disregard for the political culture in the state Capitol in Madison. The 60-year-old spent nearly $12 million of his own money on his campaign and cast himself as a disruptive candidate similar to Donald Trump, who endorsed Michels and stumped for him in Waukesha on Aug. 5.

Kleefisch, 47, was backed by Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, Wisconsin’s most influential business and commerce lobbies, and important figures in the state Republican Party like Vos.

Kleefisch’s campaign’s recent attacks tied Michels to special interest groups in his past, accused him of pushing for a gas-tax hike and questioned his Wisconsin credentials by pointing to his multi-million-dollar mansion in Connecticut. Michels slammed Kleefisch for being a bureaucratic Madison insider and promised to “drain the Madison swamp,” borrowing an oft-repeated slogan from Trump’s presidential runs.

With the Wisconsin Legislature firmly in the control of Republicans for now — and very likely for the near future — either candidate as governor would have been likely to sign into law sweeping changes or maintain current conservative legislation on abortion, education and, maybe most importantly, elections.

Evers has repeatedly denied Republican legislators’ attempts to enact further voting restrictions, but with a Republican governor, those bills would almost certainly become the law of the land — a land where the conservative-majority state Supreme Court recently banned absentee ballot drop boxes.

Both candidates at least flirted with Trump’s false claims that he was robbed of election victory in 2020 by voter fraud, and both said that, if elected, they would dissolve the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, a group that has been under constant fire since 2020 from many state conservatives, including those still running embattled audits of the 2020 presidential election.

According to a June Marquette University Law School survey, Evers is polling ahead of both Kleefisch and Michels, with a slightly closer race for the former. Evers has raised more money lately than both Kleefisch and Michels, according to recent campaign finance reports from the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

Barnes, a 35-year-old Milwaukee native and now Johnson's opponent, emphasized his working-class upbringing in a pro-union, build-it-in-America campaign championing left-leaning priorities like ending the filibuster and partisan gerrymandering, protecting transgender youth and expanding voting rights. He is backed by, among others, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Johnson’s role as an anti-woke culture warrior and Barnes’ role as a young, Black progressive makes the contrasts obvious. For Democratic voters, the choice was easy, but the question was foremost about electability.

At least that was the case for Anne Brolly, a French-American dual national who voted at South Shore Park in Bay View on Tuesday. She voted the Democratic side and was all for “anyone that can get rid of our current senator,” alluding to Johnson.

The challenger will have his work cut out for him, as the June Marquette poll shows him with only a slight two-point lead on Johnson, and the latest FEC stats show the incumbent with healthy fundraising and cash advantages over Barnes. The liberal’s win could ultimately mean maintaining or enhancing the Democrats’ razor-thin 50-50 margin in the Senate.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, elected alongside Evers and Barnes in 2018, will face the winner of a GOP race for top cop on Tuesday between former state lawmaker Adam Jarchow, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney and Chippewa Falls-based civil rights attorney and coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theorist Karen Mueller. All three challengers have promised to strictly enforce laws over election security and abortion, the latter of which in Wisconsin is currently controlled post-Dobbs by an 1849 ban Kaul is suing to overturn.

The attorney general primary remained neck-and-neck between Jarchow and Toney and had not been decided at 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night.

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