Wisconsin's 2022 Republican primary for governor

Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Tim Ramthun are trying to attract and energize conservative voters as they seek the Republican nomination for governor, but how each candidate hopes to harness frustration over the 2020 presidential election and opposition to abortion differs in subtle but meaningful ways.

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

August 4, 2022

FacebookRedditGoogle ClassroomEmail

The Republican primary candidates for governor of Wisconsin don’t differ that much from each other in policy, but they are vastly different in terms of what elements of the modern Republican party they represent.

“Well, I feel great about where we are,” said Rebecca Kleefisch. She represents establishment Republicans, the branch of the party that looks back fondly to her eight years as lieutenant governor under Scott Walker.

“I intend to lead the state into the new revolution of conservative reform,” said Kleefisch.

Rebecca Kleefisch is seated in a room with a sign reading "Rebecca for Governor" in the background.

Rebecca Kleefisch is a former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, serving in that office alongside former Gov. Scott Walker from 2011 to 2019. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Tim Michels is the businessman outsider, president of a large construction company. He’s running as the millionaire who doesn’t need to ask for money.

“I am not inside the bubble. The insiders did not recruit me, and they are not bankrolling my campaign. And I am not beholden to the PACs, the lobbyists or the special interests — I refuse their money, don’t need it, don’t want it, won’t take it!” said Michels at the state Republican Party’s convention in June.

A screenshot shows Tim Michels looking at the camera, with on-screen labels reading "Live," "Decision | 2022" and "Tim Michels | Republican Gubernatorial Primary Candidate."

A co-owner of his family construction company, Tim Michels won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2004 before losing in the general election to incumbent U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. (Credit: Courtesy of WTMJ-TV)

Tim Ramthun is a different kind of outsider, one from inside the Assembly.

“I’m being attacked and accused of things like I’m a conspiracy theorist. No, I’m not. I just want truth and transparency, and everybody else should too,” he said.

Ramthun gained national attention for attempting to reclaim Wisconsin’s electoral votes —an effort his own party ignored as unconstitutional. He was encouraged to run for governor after repeating false claims that large scale fraud tainted the 2020 presidential election.

“I got engaged and I got known all over the state, and then while I’m going up, ‘You need to run for governor!'” Ramthun said.”

Tim Ramthun is seated in a room with a blank wall in the background.

Tim Ramthun has represented Wisconsin’s 59th Assembly district since being first elected to the seat in 2018. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Ramthun wasn’t the first person in the race, but he was the first to shake it up by injecting it with Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about stuffed ballot boxes, hacked voting machines and counterfeit ballots.

“In my humble opinion, with the evidence I have, I can show nefarious acts — illegal acts, fraudulent elections — for the last two-and-a-half decades,” Ramthun said. “I got data that goes back to Clinton against Dole in 1996.”

All of these claims have been debunked, and when pressed he can only say the evidence is coming.

“Judicial, prosecutions, convictions — all of that’s coming,” said Ramthun. “So I’ve been on the right side of the fence the whole time. I know I have in my heart. I know I have in my head.”

In reality, as governor, Ramthun would dramatically rewrite state election law, eliminating the Wisconsin Elections Commission, requiring a hand count of millions of ballots on Election Day and scaling back absentee voting.

“There’s no chain of custody when you put it in the mailbox — a lot of concerns about that. We need to have same-day — you know, on paper — same-day hand count. We’ve got to have that kind of stuff done.

As for the Aug. 9 primary, Ramthun plans to conduct his own “forensic audit.”

“I have very little confidence that we will have fair, safe and legal elections starting in August,” he said. “We’ll have a rerun in November of 2022.”

Rebecca Kleefisch holds her arms up in the air while holding a small U.S. flag in her right hand while walking down the street as part of a parade, surrounded by other people wearing t-shirts reading "Rebecca for Governor."

Rebecca Kleefisch waves to would-be constituents while marching in an Independence Day parade in Oconomowoc on July 2, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Kleefisch doesn’t repeat the same election conspiracy theories, but hopes to capitalize on the anger among conservatives.

“Everyone needs to take things with a grain of salt until I can become governor and sign a whole bunch of reforms that Tony Evers has already vetoed,” she said.

“That’s what we need in order to actually have a Republican wave in November. We need people who, yes, are frustrated, but use that frustration as a motivation to show up,” said Kleefisch.

In a televised debate on July 24, Michels seemed to place blame on Kleefisch and Walker for creating the Wisconsin Elections Commission in the first place.

“I want to make sure that we don’t have these questions ever again in Wisconsin. These election fraud issues should have been fixed in previous administrations, but here we have a mess right now,” he said.

Tim Michels shakes the hand of another person while walking down a street as part of a parade.

Tim Michels shakes the hand of a would-be constituent while marching in an Independence Day parade in Oconomowoc on July 2, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Michels did not agree to a sit down interview for this story. He’s only done a few interviews and skipped an earlier Republican debate, something Kleefisch made sure to highlight.

“To my opponents: Tim, thank you for being here. Tim, thank you for showing up,” she said at the debate.

Kleefisch does not shy away from her establishment credentials.

“You know, you hear a lot of talk about everyone running as the outsider. Well, I’m not going to apologize for knowing what I’m doing. I mean, I’ve spent eight years inside making sure that I know how to run this state, making sure that I know how to make a budget that is going to be beneficial to all of Wisconsin,” she said.

The Legislature is expected to remain under Republican control, so any of these candidates could expect to see their agenda passed in full.

One area that Kleefisch said won’t change is the 1849 abortion law. She doesn’t expect to add in new exceptions.

“We already have a life of the mother statute on the books, and as far as I can see and tell, that will stay. And that is my position, which has not changed,” Kleefisch said.

Tim Ramthun waves with his right hand while walking down a street as part of a parade.

Tim Ramthun waves to would-be constituents while marching in an Independence Day parade in Grafton on July 2, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)(Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Ramthun takes a harder line, and would end all exceptions and even eliminate abortifacient birth control that prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg.

“I’m pro-life without exception. Life begins at conception. Life is a gift from God. It’s not the baby’s fault in how they were conceived. We have to stop killing babies,” he said.

Kleefisch wouldn’t clarify if she would ban any forms of birth control.

“Birth control will remain legal in the state of Wisconsin,” she said.

When asked about all forms of birth control, Kleefisch repeated: “Birth control will remain legal in the state of Wisconsin.”

Some Republican primary voters may choose simply on who they think has the best chance to beat Democrat Tony Evers in November —the electability factor.

Tony Evers stands in front of a podium with two microphones in front of the backdrop of a U.S. flag.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, speaks during an event in Superior on March 2, 2022. The winner of the Republican primary for governor will face Evers in the general election on Nov. 8. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Michels and Kleefisch have been up on Ramthun in publicly released polling, but he doesn’t care. Ramthun said the silent majority are voting for him.

“Other candidates for this position, by the way — the governor seat — they talk grassroots, can’t hold a candle to it compared to me. These people adore what I’m doing because I’m the fighter they’ve wanted for decades,” he said.

In the debate, Michels said it is his outsider status that will carry him to victory.

“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Tim, thank you for running. I’m tired of politics as usual. I’m tired of the usual politicians. I want an outsider. I want a veteran. I want a businessman. We need change.’ I say, if you want to keep politics as usual, vote for the usual politicians. This is our time to make a difference and lead Wisconsin, and get it headed in the right direction,” said Michaels.

Kleefisch has already won four statewide races for lieutenant governor, and said voters should go with the proven winner.

“If they want to make their decision on electability, that’s fine by me, because obviously I am the one who can beat Tony Evers,” she said.

Statement to the Communities We Serve

There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it.  Read the full statement.