Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has been the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers since before she formally entered the race last September, but recent developments have shown she is not the consensus pick.
Since the beginning of the year, two anti-establishment candidates — former Marine Kevin Nicholson and Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport — have joined the race, and one of the party’s most prominent figures, former four-time elected Gov. Tommy Thompson, has left open the possibility that he could run again. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump has yet to endorse.
Kleefisch has picked up support from former Gov. Scott Walker, with whom she served for eight years; Trump’s former White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and groups like Wisconsin Right to Life and the Milwaukee Police Association. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, endorsed Kleefisch in January — the first time the group endorsed a gubernatorial candidate before the primary since 2010, when it backed Walker.
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“I think Kleefisch is the clear front-runner at this point in time,” said Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who was mulling a run for governor before deciding against it last September. “If you’re picking lanes, she’s filling out the establishment lane, Nicholson is in sort of the outsider lane and Ramthun is in the insurgent lane.”
Another potential candidate, Madison businessman Eric Hovde, said just because Kleefisch was the first of the three top candidates to announce doesn’t mean she’s favored to win.
“Do I think this is a settled race?” Hovde said. “No, by no means.
“I think a lot of people are tired of professional politicians and insiders and how they’ve led our country,” Hovde said. “I think there is a growing desire by many people to see outsiders come into the political process and bring different sets of skills, experiences and views.”
Kleefisch declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an email she welcomes a GOP primary — the former television journalist came out on top in a five-way primary for lieutenant governor in 2010 — and her campaign is largely focused on unseating Evers.
“We can’t have four more years of this weak leadership,” Kleefisch said. “My campaign is for the long haul. Our opponent is Tony Evers.”
Thompson has said he’ll make a decision about his future by the end of April, after his time as University of Wisconsin president ends March 18. In an interview he said that includes whether he’d make an endorsement if he doesn’t run.
“I have been completely nonpolitical for 20 months and I’m not going to violate my position by talking politics now,” he said. “I’m not going to be hurried up to make any decisions until I get a chance to sit down with my advisers, my friends, my family and see what’s available out there.”
McCoshen, former chief of staff to Thompson, said it’s possible the former governor joins the field.
“Thompson is in a unique position where he could get in a lot later than anybody else because of the name ID he already has and because of his favorability rating statewide, which is very, very high,” McCoshen said.
With the GOP primary almost five months away, the first Marquette Law School Poll of the year, released Wednesday, found among Republicans and independents who say they will vote in the GOP primary that 30% support Kleefisch, 8% support Nicholson, 5% support Ramthun, and 54% have no preference.
Half of respondents said they haven’t heard of or have no opinion of Kleefisch, compared with 80% for Nicholson and 86% for Ramthun.
Kleefisch’s name recognition has remained relatively level in polls dating back to May 2012, when 44% of respondents said they had no opinion of her. Just under 70% of voters had no opinion of Nicholson in July 2018 leading up to his primary loss for U.S. Senate that year to former state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who went on to lose to Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
“We’re not going into the primaries with lots of voters who have firm opinions, and of course name recognition and familiarity is playing a large role at this point,” poll director Charles Franklin said. “The candidates, even those who served in office or ran for office before, are not all that familiar to voters at this point.”
Kleefisch is no stranger to a contested primary, though her lead in the polls is a turnabout from 2010, when she was the first candidate voted off the endorsement ballot at the state GOP’s convention. Kleefisch went on to win that year’s primary, shocking GOP insiders in the process, and joined Walker on the gubernatorial ticket.
“We ushered in a golden era of conservative reforms, and when I become governor I plan to do that again,” Kleefisch said. “I don’t do revisionist history. ... I lived through all of the fights to be where I am today, and I will continue to fight for Wisconsin.”
Not so fast
But a growing push among some Trump supporters to oust establishment Republicans and what Nicholson has dubbed the “Madison machine” — including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who earlier this year urged Nicholson not to run while deeming Kleefisch the best choice to defeat Evers — has some wondering if fissures within the party could derail her candidacy.
“Do we want to keep bumping along in Robin Vos’ jalopy not accomplishing anything or do we want to take a different approach,” Nicholson said. “Any misguided belief on the part of the Madison machine that they are just going to waltz through a primary and then go into the general (election) and people are suddenly going to like them is absurd.”
Doubling down on his anti-establishment campaign, Nicholson last month told the state Republican Party he is not seeking the party’s endorsement and urged the party not to endorse any candidates before the primary.
“I believe that the RPW endorsement process is an attempt on the part of party insiders to improperly aid hand-picked insider candidates,” he wrote in a letter to the party. “Again, this is a process that has yielded losses in 11 out of the last 12 statewide general elections in Wisconsin.”
The state Republican Party plans to hold endorsement votes at its May convention. About half a dozen county parties are also planning to sit out the state party’s endorsement process. Further underscoring a potential rift among Republicans, a handful of county parties have called on Vos to resign under the slogan “toss Vos.”
“In 2010, the Republican Party was unified, they were marching in single file,” Democratic strategist Mike Tate said. “Now they are wandering around lost in a field. The contrast couldn’t be more stark”.
Longtime Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said anti-establishment Republicans make up a small sample of the overall party and predicted Nicholson and Ramthun will split that vote, benefiting Kleefisch.
“Those guys are going to split 15% of the vote in the primary ... unless one of them collapses,” Scholz said.
The Trump card
Another lingering question in Wisconsin’s GOP race is who will secure backing from Trump, which McCoshen described as “the most important endorsement that’s outstanding, no question about it.”
“It moves GOP primary voters more than anything else, which is why it’s so coveted,” McCoshen said. “If Kleefisch were to get that, I think the race is over and she’ll win the primary and I think she’ll be well positioned to win the general. If Thompson or Nicholson or one of the outsiders were to get that, they’re going to level the playing field the day the president makes that announcement — it becomes a new ballgame overnight.”
Trump has not formally endorsed any of the Republicans currently in the race, although he did call on retired U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy to run for governor last October, which the former lumberjack athlete later declined.
Ramthun, who has falsely claimed that Trump won Wisconsin’s 2020 election, has drawn praise from the former president, who called the state lawmaker in early December to thank him for his efforts to overturn the election, Rolling Stone reported last month. Trump has continued to falsely claim he won the 2020 election, despite recounts, audits and court decisions affirming that President Joe Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes.
While Ramthun repeats the lie that Trump won Wisconsin and is largely focused on “reclaiming” the state’s 10 electoral college votes for the former president, Nicholson has conceded that Biden won, albeit in a “messy, sloppy, messed-up election,” as he told WDJT-TV.
For her part, Kleefisch said about five months ago that Biden won the state. She has since walked back those comments and now questions whether the president fairly won, citing ongoing GOP-ordered reviews of the 2020 election.
Strategists say a contested primary results in two potential outcomes: Either a heated campaign that results in a battle-tested candidate better positioned to challenge the incumbent, or messy infighting that drags down the whole field.
Evers is running largely on the “kitchen table issues” that helped him unseat Walker in 2018 with hopes of bucking historical trends that often spell midterm challenges for the party in the White House. The incumbent governor said last month the current GOP primary seems to be pushing Republicans further to the right.
“It is a radical agenda and I don’t know if radicalism in the state of Wisconsin is something that a lot of people embrace, but that said that’s exactly what’s happening — every day one is leapfrogging over the other to be more conservative,” Evers said.
Scholz drew comparisons to the GOP primary leading up to the state’s 2012 U.S. Senate race, in which a contested GOP primary ended with Thompson securing the nomination, but the four-term governor was unable to rebound in the months that followed and ultimately lost to Baldwin.
“When people talk about worrying about an ugly primary, it’s exactly for that reason,” Scholz said. “You would have to spend a lot of money to defend yourself against frivolous attacks ... but when you go negative to take your opponent down, you’ve got to remember you drive your negatives up. It’s high risk.”
A bit of history
Only four incumbent governors have lost reelection bids over the last 50 years in Wisconsin. All four lost to a challenger who came out of a contested primary.
- In 1978, UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Lee Dreyfus defeated then-U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten in the GOP primary before going on to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Martin Schreiber with about 54% of the vote.
- Democrat Tony Earl ran for a second term in 1986, but ultimately lost to Thompson, then the Assembly Minority Leader, who came out of a heated GOP primary to secure more than 56% of the vote to win the first of his four consecutive terms as governor.
- In 2002, then-Attorney General Jim Doyle secured a little over one-third of the vote in a contested Democratic primary before going on to defeat incumbent Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.
- Then-state superintendent Evers faced a crowded Democratic field that at one time included more than a dozen candidates leading up to the 2018 primary, where he won with about 40% of the vote. Evers went on to narrowly defeat incumbent Walker by a little over 1% of the vote.
“Just looking at gubernatorial incumbent defeats since 1970, there have been two Democrats and two Republicans who have lost — all four of them were defeated by someone who first won in a competitive primary,” McCoshen said.
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