Wisconsin Republicans Embrace Trump in a Race Defined by 2020 Grievances

Republican primary voters upended their party’s establishment in Wisconsin on Tuesday, choosing a Trump-backed candidate for governor who has entertained overturning the 2020 election results to take on Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in one of the country’s most consequential November contests.

Tim Michels, a wealthy construction magnate endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump, defeated former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who had support from former Gov. Scott Walker, former Vice President Mike Pence and dozens of state legislators, as well as the state’s largest business organizations.

And Mr. Trump’s followers gave a serious scare to the powerful Republican speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos. In recent weeks, Mr. Vos had become the former president’s chief antagonist among Wisconsin Republicans because he refused to indulge Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 results can still be decertified.

Mr. Vos inched past a far-right challenger and political neophyte who was desperately short on money but was buoyed by a Trump endorsement just a week before the primary.

Mr. Michels won by predicating his entire campaign on his support from Mr. Trump, highlighting that distinction in nearly all of his millions of dollars of self-funded television advertising and reminding voters about it during campaign stops and debates.

“I’d like to thank President Trump for his support, for his endorsement,” Mr. Michels said in victory remarks at his campaign headquarters in Waukesha, Wis. “It was a tremendous validation of our meteoric rise in this campaign. He knows that we need new leadership and he sees a lot of similarities.”

During the primary, Mr. Michels, 60, subscribed to some of Mr. Trump’s most outlandish conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. He pledged to consider signing legislation that would overturn Mr. Trump’s defeat to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Wisconsin and withdraw the state’s 10 electoral votes — a move that has no basis in state or federal law.

But on Tuesday night, Mr. Michels did not mention the 2020 election or the state’s voting laws — an issue that just last week he said he was “very, very fired up about.”

Mr. Michels has projected a tough-on-crime stance, pledging to fire the Democratic district attorney in Milwaukee, hire more police officers and increase prison sentences for gun-related crimes. He also opposes abortion, which is now illegal in Wisconsin under an 1849 law and is likely to remain that way under the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Now Mr. Michels will take on Mr. Evers, who has cast himself as a defender of fair elections and has vetoed more than a dozen bills passed by Legislature that would have restricted voting.

Mr. Michels has proposed replacing the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission with a body made up of one member from each of the state’s gerrymandered congressional districts — a way for Republicans to maintain control of the state’s election apparatus for at least the next decade.

Mr. Evers has shattered fund-raising records in Wisconsin, raising more than $10 million through July despite worries among Democrats that he does not generate enough excitement among the party’s base. Mr. Michels has spent more than $8 million of his own money since joining the race in April, and he is likely to invest even more in the general election.

While Mr. Michels prevailed, Mr. Trump ultimately failed to displace Mr. Vos, who has been in the Legislature since 2005 and served as speaker since 2013, wielding more influence than any other Republican in the state in recent years.

After pressuring Mr. Vos over the 2020 election in public and private for months, last week Mr. Trump endorsed his long-shot challenger, Adam Steen. A small-time real estate investor, Mr. Steen had no paid staff and barely raised enough money to print and mail campaign literature.

The race was far closer than Wisconsin analysts had expected, with Mr. Steen appearing to come within several hundred votes of toppling Mr. Vos, a testament to the power of the Trump endorsement and the enduring false belief that the 2020 election can still be rolled back.

Over the last year, Mr. Vos tried entertaining Mr. Trump’s wildest conspiracy theories about the 2020 election without completely giving in to the lies. When the former president demanded last summer that the state review its election results, Mr. Vos instead appointed a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to pursue a state-funded investigation of his own.



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The Gableman investigation served as an albatross for Mr. Vos when Mr. Gableman, in March, falsely suggested that state legislators could decertify the 2020 election. Mr. Vos resisted the proposal, including in multiple conversations with the former president.

A week ago, Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Steen, who by that point had raised less than $40,000, barely enough to print and mail campaign literature to his district in western Racine County. Last weekend, Mr. Gableman turned on his political patron and joined Mr. Trump in endorsing Mr. Steen.

Mr. Vos, at his victory party, called Mr. Gableman “an embarrassment to the state” and said he would review the status of the former justice’s ongoing investigation next week.

The primaries on Tuesday in Wisconsin and three other states — Minnesota, Connecticut and Vermont — came a day after the F.B.I. conducted a search of Mr. Trump’s home in Florida, setting off fury from Republicans nationwide. Mr. Michels called the search “a political witch hunt,” while Ms. Kleefisch said it was “shocking and unprecedented.”

On the Democratic side in Wisconsin, the party settled its most consequential primary two weeks ago, when three leading candidates dropped out and endorsed Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in the contest to face Senator Ron Johnson, a two-term Republican.

The Barnes-Johnson matchup is expected to be one of the nation’s hardest-fought Senate races. Mr. Johnson, the only incumbent Republican senator running in a state Mr. Biden carried in 2020, is a top target of Democrats who point to his role as a leading amplifier of misinformation about the pandemic and American elections.

In Minnesota’s race for governor, Republicans nominated Dr. Scott Jensen, a former state senator who rose to prominence by opposing pandemic mitigation efforts. His campaign may test the appetite for anti-abortion politics in Democratic states. His running mate, Matt Birk, a former professional football player, is one of Minnesota’s most prominent proponents of restricting abortion rights.

Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the leading progressives in the House, narrowly survived a Democratic primary challenge to her Minneapolis seat from Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member backed by several local mayors who have been at odds with Ms. Omar since she was first elected in 2018.

In Vermont, Democrats chose Becca Balint, a state senator backed by Senator Bernie Sanders, to fill the state’s lone House seat. Ms. Balint defeated Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who was endorsed by Senator Patrick Leahy.

The House seat was open because of Mr. Leahy’s retirement after eight terms. Representative Peter Welch gave it up to replace the senator, and coasted to victory in the Senate primary.

Ms. Balint, the president of the Vermont Senate, has presented herself a progressive fighter in Mr. Sanders’s image. Ms. Gray campaigned as a liberal conciliator, more willing to work among the moderate figures in her party.

And in Connecticut’s Republican primary for Senate, voters chose Leora Levy, a Cuban-born Republican National Committee member who was endorsed by Mr. Trump. She defeated Themis Klarides, a former minority leader of the Connecticut House who was backed by party moderates.

But Ms. Levy is not expected to mount a competitive challenge to Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat seeking his third term.

When Ms. Kleefisch announced her bid for governor of Wisconsin in September 2021, she promoted herself as the inheritor of the legacy of Mr. Walker — with whom she served before Mr. Evers ousted them in 2018 — and gathered endorsements from national Republicans like Mr. Pence and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

But she failed to consolidate support from Mr. Trump’s most devoted supporters, who searched for an alternative candidate for months.

Then, in April, Mr. Michels entered the race. Soon after — in a relationship brokered by Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s Wisconsin-born former chief of staff — the former president endorsed Mr. Michels, whose fortune stems from a construction company he and his brothers inherited from their father that had a contract to help construct the Keystone XL pipeline before it was canceled by Mr. Biden.

Mr. Michels, who was the 2004 Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, has spent much of the time since then living in New York and Connecticut, where he owns a $17 million estate and his children attended school. Mr. Michels continued to maintain a Wisconsin residence and has voted regularly in the state, though he skipped the 2016 presidential primary, when Mr. Trump was first on the ballot.

From the start, choosing Mr. Michels was rooted in Mr. Trump’s grievance about his 2020 loss in Wisconsin.

When Mr. Michels met with Mr. Trump at his Florida estate, the former president discussed tweets of photos that showed Ms. Kleefisch’s then-16-year-old daughter going to a high school homecoming dance with the son of Brian Hagedorn, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Mr. Trump and his Wisconsin supporters hold a grudge against Justice Hagedorn because he cast the deciding vote in rejecting Mr. Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the election results in December 2020.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on Mr. Trump’s interest in the photos.

While Mr. Michels never fully endorsed Mr. Trump’s futile obsession with decertifying the 2020 results, he toyed with the prospect enough to allow voters to believe that he would try. In the final week before Tuesday’s primary, Mr. Michels said he would consider signing legislation to claw back Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes — something for which there is no legal mechanism.

Ms. Kleefisch has said repeatedly that it is impossible to undo the election.



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