MADISON, Wis. - Former President Donald Trump's continued influence over the Republican Party was clear in Wisconsin's primary election Tuesday, Aug. 9. Tim Michels, the candidate he endorsed for governor, won the tightly-contested Republican primary.
Michels will face Democratic Governor Tony Evers in November.
Fresh off his Democratic U.S. Senate primary win, Mandela Barnes, current Wisconsin lieutenant governor, took part in a campaign event Wednesday alongside Evers and Sara Rodriguez, Democratic lieutenant governor nominee.
The Evers and Rodriguez event came less than 24 hours after Michels took the stage at his election night party in Waukesha. Evers, an educator-turned elected leader of the state is seeking another term as governor.
Besting establishment Republican Rebecca Kleefisch in the party primary, Michels touted his experience running his contracting company and his Trump endorsement.
Michels said he's concerned about the direction of the country and Wisconsin, and he has the experience needed in Madison.
"As governor, my number one priority is to take care of the hardworking people of Wisconsin," said Michels. "All we’ve won is the opportunity, for the next 91 days, to work even harder because we have to beat Tony Evers."
Trump's influence in Wisconsin
Trump reasserted his grip on Republicans in Wisconsin's primary, but Evers tried to play that against his newly minted Republican opponent Wednesday while observers said running too closely to Trump in the swing state could be dangerous.
Evers said Michels' win means Michels now "owns" Trump, and he won't be able to moderate in the general election.
"His relationship with Trump is going to drive this campaign," said Evers. "Trump owns him. He owns Trump. That’s his problem. That’s not mine."
Michels sought to tie Evers to President Joe Biden, releasing a new TV ad the day after his win that calls them "both career politicians in way over their head." The ad does not mention Trump's endorsement of Michels.
Michels’ campaign adviser Chris Walker said in a statement that Evers and Biden "are going to desperately attempt to do everything they can to distract the people of Wisconsin from their massive failures."
Michels, in his victory speech, touted himself as the voice for a working class that he said has been left behind by Democrats. Evers mocked that message, noting that Michels owns a $17 million estate in Connecticut.
"He can wear a blue shirt so that he can have a blue collar, but at the end of the day, I’m not quite sure that someone of his status with houses all over the country can say ‘I’m just one of you,’" Evers said.
Like Trump, Michels has cast himself as an outsider. Evers dismissed that too, calling it "one of the biggest jokes of this campaign." He cited Michels’ work serving on the boards of powerful lobbying groups, including the state chamber of commerce.
Trump narrowly won the state in 2016 and lost by a similar margin in 2020. A Marquette University Law School poll released in May showed Trump's favorability rating in the state at 35%, with 61% having an unfavorable opinion.
In addition to backing Michels, Trump is a strong supporter of Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who faces Mandela Barnes, the current lieutenant governor.
"Trump cuts both ways," Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said. "While he drives his base and supporters in the primary, will that help in the general because he turns off as many people as he turns on? ... I don’t think we know yet."
Michels would be smart to focus on Biden, Evers and the issues such as inflation, crime and the economy, not Trump, said Republican strategist Mark Graul.
Evers pointed to recent polls to argue that Michels is out of step with a majority of Wisconsin residents on key issues like abortion rights and the outcome of the 2020 election won by Biden. Trump has continued to push for decertification, which attorneys from both sides and legal experts have discounted as an unconstitutional impossibility.
Michels has been inconsistent on decertification, but he does want to dismantle the bipartisan elections commission and sign bills Evers vetoed that would make it harder to vote absentee.
Gov. Tony Evers
Trump is popular with many because he is perceived to be a fighter, but Michels needs to broaden that message, said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. He endorsed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the primary and was targeted for defeat by Trump.
"If he is a perceived to be a fighter who gets things done, I think that will be a much more appealing general election message," Vos said of Michels.
Michels' win over Kleefisch, who was endorsed by Mike Pence and represented a continuation of former Gov. Scott Walker's legacy, was the clearest victory for a Trump-backed candidate in Wisconsin. But every candidate who ran in support of decertifying Biden’s 2020 victory lost. That included the Trump-backed challenger to Vos, candidates for attorney general and secretary of state and legislative candidates seeking to unseat Republican incumbents, including one taking on Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.
In the days before the election, Vos challenger Adam Steen was joined on the campaign trail by the investigator Vos hired under pressure from Trump to look into the 2020 election. That investigator, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, also appeared at the Trump rally.
A triumphant Vos declared his 260-vote win shows "you don’t have to be a lapdog to whatever Donald Trump says." Vos called a meeting of Assembly Republicans for Tuesday to discuss the future of Gableman's contract, which has cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million and remains subject to five pending lawsuits.
Evers said Vos must fire Gableman or "I’m fearful we’re going to be talking about this election for the next 20 years."