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Candidates hold similar views on abortion, differ on election decertification, in GOP gubernatorial debate

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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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Related to this story

Legal experts, including Republican attorneys, say there is no legal means to decertify the past election and no evidence to support such action. Yet decertification continues to be a rallying cry among many Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

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