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'Holy mackerel folks': Gov. Tony Evers celebrates win; Tim Michels concedes

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Evers wins

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges supporters after having been reelected to a second term during an election night watch party The Orpheum. Evers and his challenger, Tim Michels, were in a close race most of the night Tuesday. Michels conceded after midnight.

Breaking from historic trends that spell out challenges for the party holding the White House, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers secured a second term in Tuesday’s midterm election after defeating Republican challenger Tim Michels.

Buoyed by high turnout in liberal strongholds like Madison and Milwaukee, paired with Michels’ underperformance in GOP counties that went handedly to former Gov. Scott Walker four years ago, Evers successfully secured a second term in office, dashing GOP hopes of reclaiming a trifecta of Republican control in Wisconsin.

>> Live election results

Speaking to supporters shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, where he celebrated his 2018 victory over then-incumbent Walker, Evers said he was "jazzed as hell to tell you that on Jan 3, 2023, I will still be the 46th governor of the great state of Wisconsin.

"Holy mackerel folks, how about that?" Evers added. He was joined on stage by former state Rep. Sara Rodriguez, who joins Evers as lieutenant governor.

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Evers held a 3-point lead over Michels with 92% of votes counted as of about 12:20 a.m. Wednesday, numbers that led to Michels' concession at an election night party in Milwaukee. About 1% of votes have gone to Independent Joan Beglinger, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Michels.

"Unfortunately the math doesn’t add up," Michels told supporters about 20 minutes before Evers' victory speech. "I just called Gov. Evers and I conceded."

>> Here's who won and who lost Tuesday

Election results are considered unofficial until they're formally canvassed, but The Associated Press declares victors when a winner is certain. The Associated Press called the race for Evers at 1:12 a.m. Wednesday.

Michels entered the race in late-April and withstood a tough August primary to go on to face incumbent Evers, who positioned himself as the "last line of defense" against GOP policies. Tuesday’s election is expected to have far-reaching impacts on state policy for the next four years, including how the 2024 presidential election is conducted in the state.

Michels surged to a primary victory thanks in part to an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who still holds considerable sway in the state. The co-owner of Brownsville-based Michels Corp. also spent more than $18 million of his own money on his campaign, the most in state history.

With his victory, Evers becomes the first Wisconsin governor in 32 years who was the same party as the sitting president to win reelection in a midterm, according to The Associated Press.

As precincts started to report results Tuesday, it became evident that, while Michels was winning key GOP strongholds, the co-owner of Brownsville-based Michels Corp. was not securing the margins needed to defeat Evers.

In Brookfield, for example, Michels won the Waukesha County city by 7%, falling more than 20 points below Walker’s 28-point win in 2018. Michels also won the city of Waukesha by about 4 points, compared to a 15-point victory by Walker four years ago.

Evers also improved on his 2018 performance in all three of the WOW counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, which wrap around Milwaukee and include the state's largest concentration of Republican voters.

In Dane County, Evers held a more than 172,000 vote lead over Michels with all but one precinct reporting results. Evers won the county by less than 151,000 votes in his 2018 matchup against Walker.

Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Tuesday's results in the gubernatorial race, as well as state legislative elections, "represent a stunning victory, not just for Democrats in Wisconsin, but for democracy in America."

"These wins transcend history in a state that almost always denies the governorship to the party that controls the White House," Wikler said. "More than that, Governor Evers’ win — and the preservation of his power to veto legislation — ensures that free and fair elections can continue to prevail in the most pivotal state in the Electoral College."

Evers’s victory all but ensures the ongoing gridlock in the state Capitol, with the Democratic governor pledging to stand in the way of Republican proposals including abortion restrictions, changes to how state elections are conducted and calls for expanded school choice.

Evers wins

Supporters of Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers wait for election results Tuesday night at the Orpheum Theater in Madison. With Evers holding a slight lead, the race was too close to call late Tuesday.

"Policy creation during the last several years has been dysfunctional because Evers and legislative leaders have found almost no common ground," UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said. "Many of the policy battles have taken place via lawsuits in the courts rather than through a legislative negotiation with the executive branch."

Evers has been able to largely control how to spend millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 funds allocated to the state. At the same time, Republicans in the Legislature have rejected all special sessions called by the governor for matters ranging from abortion access to gun control measures.

With Evers' victory, Burden said the next four years "are likely to remain acrimonious and see many more vetoes of Republican proposals."

A Michels victory would have returned the state Capitol to a trifecta Republican control in Wisconsin, creating a scenario where there would be "little holding back Republicans from an aggressive policy agenda,” Burden said.

Michels had expressed plans to sign into law several Republican-authored bills including measures that Evers has vetoed, including bills to add restrictions to elections in the state and expand school choice offerings.

Some proposals touted by Michels include universal school choice, mandatory minimum sentencing for felons convicted of gun possession and "massive tax reform," though he has not provided specifics on the proposal.

Michels watch party

Tim Job of Fredonia livestreams from the election night party for Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee.

"In hindsight, looking back, I don’t know what I would have done differently, it was a very spirited effort," Michels said in his brief speech. "The enthusiasm was just off the charts, but it wasn’t our night tonight and I thank everybody for all of your support."

Evers and Michels have tangled over a multitude of issues leading up to Tuesday’s election, with Evers focusing largely on the issue of reproductive health following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.

Michels had previously said the state’s 1849 abortion ban, which remains on the books and does not provide exceptions for rape or incest, was an “exact mirror of my position." But in September, Michels said he would sign a bill providing those exceptions if the ban is upheld in court. Evers, who has sought to codify Roe v. Wade, has said he would not support such exceptions if it means leaving Wisconsin's 1849 law in place.

Margaret Keuler, chair of College Democrats of Wisconsin, who was attending Evers’ election night party Tuesday, said abortion was her biggest concern heading into the election.

“Absolutely abortion, and that’s what we’ve heard the most on-campus … it's really (Evers’) veto power and being strong against people who are trying to restrict that access that’s important.”

“I don’t really trust someone who is not really sure if I should have the right to do what I want with my body,” Keuler said of Michels. “That’s my biggest fear with having Michels in office.”

While he has said the 2020 election was "maybe" stolen, Michels said decertifying the results of the 2020 election — something that is legally and constitutionally impossible — is "not a priority" if he's elected governor. Michels also said last month he would "certainly" accept the outcome of Tuesday's election after initially refusing to commit to doing so.

With regard to future elections in the state, Michels had signaled plans to sign into law a handful of bills that were passed by the Republican-led Legislature but ultimately vetoed by Evers, who said such proposals would make voting harder in the state.

Michels has also called for dismantling the Wisconsin Elections Commission and replacing the agency with a commission consisting of members representing the state's eight congressional districts, though he has not said who would appoint the new agency's members. Five of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts are held by Republicans, while the elections commission is evenly split between appointees from both parties.

State law triggers a free recount of the results if the margin between the candidates is 0.25 percent or less and the candidate who lost the initial count by that margin requests one. If margin is more than 0.25 percent but no more than 1 percent, the losing candidate may petition and pay for a recount.

State Journal reporter Melissa Renee Perry contributed to this report.

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