Republicans running for the chance to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November largely agreed on policy questions in a Sunday debate leading up to a hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary in a little over two weeks.
Participating in the debate — hosted by TMJ4 News and Marquette University — were Tim Michels, the millionaire co-owner of Brownsville-based construction company Michels Corp.; former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who served eight years under former Gov. Scott Walker; and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, who has campaigned largely on his efforts to decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Marquette Law School’s June poll found Michels and Kleefisch nearly tied at the front of the race. Business owner Adam Fischer is also running but did not meet the requirements to participate in the debate.
Candidates offered differing positions on the call by some Republicans for decertifying the results of the 2020 presidential election — something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, experts and legal scholars have called legally and constitutionally impossible.
Michels said decertifying the election would not be a goal if elected this fall. Michels has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who continues to make unfounded claims of a “stolen” election despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
“It’s not a priority,” Michels said, when pressed on the issue of decertification. “My priories are election integrity, crime reduction and education reform.”
Kleefisch, who has been endorsed by more than 50 state lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, also said she would not make decertification a priority if elected governor.
“The 2020 election, I feel was rigged,” Kleefisch said, pointing out that she sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission challenging state guidance in 2020 allowing ballot drop boxes and consolidating polling places during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit was ultimately rejected by the state’s high court.
Ramthun said he was surprised to be the only candidate on stage calling for decertification. When asked to provide evidence of widespread fraud, he pointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month banning the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in the state.
“They were illegal then, they’re illegal now and they’ll be illegal going forward,” Ramthun said, to cheers from the audience.
TMJ4 anchor and debate moderator Charles Benson was met with boos from the audience when he reminded Ramthun that the Supreme Court ruled that state law does not allow drop boxes, but didn’t suggest that those who used the boxes voted illegally
A recount, court decisions and multiple reviews have affirmed that President Joe Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes.
The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will go on to face Evers, who is seeking a second term, in the Nov. 8 election. The gubernatorial race is considered high-stakes for both parties, as Republicans, who hold strong majorities in the state Assembly and Senate, look to take back full control of the state government. Democrats, meanwhile, have rallied behind Evers, who has vetoed more than 100 GOP-authored bills since taking office in 2019, ranging from abortion restrictions to changes to the election procedures.
“The stakes in this race could not be higher: We can either go down a path where radical politicians divide our communities and our rights are no longer guaranteed,” Evers’ campaign manager Cassi Fenilli said in a statement Sunday. “Or we can choose to continue doing the right thing for our state.”
Kleefisch, Michels and Ramthun held largely similar views on rejecting federal funding tied to Medicaid expansion in the state, breaking up the Milwaukee Public Schools district and supporting the state’s 1849 abortion ban following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The state’s 173-year-old abortion ban only provides exceptions to protect the life of the mother.
Kleefisch said she does not support exemptions, but added that “miscarriage care and ectopic pregnancy treatment are not abortion.”
Michels said he would look to add funding to counseling and other services for women, while Ramthun said he would work to speed up the adoption process for women with unplanned pregnancies.
All three conservatives also spoke in favor of tax reform, with Kleefisch advocating for moving to a flat tax for all residents and eliminating the state’s income tax, while Ramthun said he would work to reduce taxes by repealing the state income tax or local school tax levies.
Last month’s Marquette Law School Poll found that 27% of Republican primary voters support Michels, while 26% support Kleefisch. Ramthun was supported by 3% of respondents. Close to one-third of respondents remained undecided.
Polling also found Evers holding a slight edge in head-to-head matchups with the major Republicans in the race. The Democratic governor was the pick of 47% of respondents in a head-to-head scenario with Kleefisch, who received 43% support. Against Michels, who had not previously been featured in a Marquette poll, Evers held a 48-41 advantage. Evers also fared better against Ramthun, (51-34).
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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has supported federal abortion bans in the past and praised the leaked Roe draft opinion but said the matter is best be handled by each state. Still, the Oshkosh Republican's spokesperson, Alexa Henning, would not clarify whether Johnson would support a federal ban.
"The reality is there is no consensus on passing federal legislation, nor will there be without the process first playing out in the states," she said in a statement. "The Senator has always felt that this issue is best decided by the people on a state-by-state basis."
Johnson supported a federal 20-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. He also signed onto the U.S. Supreme Court brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization — the case poised to trigger the court overturning Roe — to uphold Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban. The Mississippi law has exceptions for medical emergencies or “a severe fetal abnormality.”
"Roe v. Wade delayed a democratic resolution to the profound moral question of abortion for 50 years," Henning said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is the Democratic U.S. Senate frontrunner according to the Marquette Law School Poll, called for nationwide abortion protections and the abolition of the filibuster to achieve that goal.
“I firmly believe in every woman’s right to make decisions about her own body," he said in a statement. "Politicians have no right to put restrictions on that decision."
Barnes said he would vote in favor of the Women's Health Protection Act, the leading effort to codify the right to an abortion nationwide.
The measure would permit abortions any time before fetal viability and after viability as long as the pregnancy could pose a risk to the pregnant patient's life or health.
Milwaukee Bucks executive-on-leave Alex Lasry also said he supports Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin's Women's Health Protection Act.
Speaking from the U.S. Supreme Court the night the majority draft opinion came out, Lasry warned such a decision would lead to an almost complete abortion ban in Wisconsin.
Polling second in the Democratic Senate primary according to the Marquette poll, Lasry said he supports the proposal that guarantees "a pregnant person’s right to access an abortion — and the right of an abortion provider to deliver these abortion services — free from medically unnecessary restrictions that interfere with a patient’s individual choice or the provider-patient relationship."
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the only female top-tier Senate candidate, campaigned on codifying Roe before the leaked draft opinion made national headlines.
She "opposes abortion restrictions that endanger or punish women," Godlewski spokesperson Sarah Abel said in a statement. She has also expressed support for the Women's Health Protection Act.
After the leak, Godlewski expressed frustration at Democrats' fruitless attempts to codify Roe and ran an ad blasting Johnson for supporting reversing a case that guaranteed abortion protections nationwide for nearly 50 years.
"Sarah believes these personal and complicated decisions should be left to women and their doctors," Abel said.
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said he would vote to eliminate the filibuster and codify Roe if he were a U.S. senator after Politico broke the news about the leaked draft.
"A woman's right to choose is absolute. I trust women to make their own medical decisions," the Democratic Senate candidate said in a statement. "I have a 100% NARAL and Planned Parenthood voting record over three terms (2005-11) in the state Assembly — no one else in the field can match that."
Saying reproductive rights were on the ballot in November, Nelson also said he favors expanding the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservative justices currently hold a 6-3 majority on the court.
After the leak, Nelson said, "The Supreme Court has shown their hand. Senator Chuck Schumer must call a special session to blow up the filibuster and codify Roe now.”
Gov. Tony Evers
Soon after the Roe leak made national headlines, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers led a coalition of 17 governors across the country calling on Congress to pass Baldwin's Women’s Health Protection Act.
Still on the books but unenforceable since Roe, a resumption of the state ban would swamp Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to stand as a bulwark between the Republican-controlled Legislature and a full-fledged abortion ban.
Still, he said he "will fight every day" for access to abortion and reproductive rights as long as he is governor.
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, whom the Marquette poll shows is the clear Republican frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, said she supports Wisconsin's law that bans abortion in almost every instance except for when the mother's life is at risk.
Asked during a Fox6 interview whether she would support additional exceptions for rape and incest, Kleefisch said she wouldn't because she doesn't "think it’s the baby’s fault how the baby is conceived."
She also said she hoped and prayed for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe. In the past, Kleefisch said she would support a bill banning abortions after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat.
Kevin Nicholson debate
Management consultant and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Nicholson has called himself "100% pro-life" and said he prays Roe gets overturned.
While he once supported abortion rights, Nicholson said in a survey that he would ban abortions in all cases.
"I’m honored to be the only candidate for governor endorsed by both Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action PAC," he said in a statement.
As governor, Nicholson said he would "(end) state funding of Planned Parenthood and (support) existing pregnancy resource centers around our state."
State Rep. Tim Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, who is running for governor, also has called himself "100% pro-life."
Ramthun and Nicholson are the only two gubernatorial candidates endorsed by Pro-Life Wisconsin, a group that opposes abortion ban exceptions for rape, incest or the life and health of the mother.
He also voted against a package of anti-abortion legislation because they contained exceptions for when abortion would be permitted.
"A child should never suffer for the sins of their mothers or fathers, and all life is sacred," he said in a statement.