Now that the initial shock of the red wave that wasn’t has worn off and the anger over dramatic Republican underperformance in what should have been a massive year has somewhat subsided, it may be possible to rationally analyze why the Wisconsin GOP failed to capture the governor’s mansion.
By winning a second term, Democrat Governor Tony Evers became the first man to win a gubernatorial election when his party controlled the White House in more than 30 years. Making his victory even more improbable was the fact that Republican Senator Ron Johnson won reelection on the same night.
One might have expected Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels’ vote total to track similarly to Johnson’s, but it didn’t. In fact, it didn’t come close. In every county both candidates needed to win handily to achieve victory statewide, Michels ran between two and four percent behind Johnson. According to unofficial results, Johnson received a total of 68,695 more votes than Michels.
At first glance, it would be easy to blame the presence of self-described “independent conservative” Joan Ellis Beglinger on the gubernatorial ballot for this discrepancy. Even though Beglinger dropped out of the race in early September and endorsed Michels, Democrat dark money groups ran advertisements and sent mailers touting her candidacy and trashing Michels as a “RINO” in the waning days of the campaign. Beglinger, though, earned just 26,987 votes.
Where were the other 41,708 Johnson voters? Why couldn’t they bring themselves to mark their ballots for Michels? While it may be assumed that many Beglinger voters would have voted for Michels if she did not remain on the ballot, that is not a sure thing. A Beglinger vote was just as likely to be a protest vote against Michels, the Republican Party, “the establishment,” or some combination of the three.
This also presupposes that Johnson earned their vote, but Michels did not. Therein lies the simple, hard, inescapable truth: Michels didn’t work hard enough to earn their vote and he was a deeply flawed candidate who was unwilling to spend enough of his own massive fortune, leaving him unable to counter both the legitimate and ridiculous attacks against him.
It’s not as if there weren’t longstanding warning signs. In 2004, a year in which Republicans won the presidency and gained five seats in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate (including the one held by Minority Leader Tom Daschle), Michels lost his bid to unseat Senator Russ Feingold by more than 11 percent and 330,000 total votes.
Crucially, he ran nearly 177,000 votes behind President George W. Bush, who came within a half-percent of beating Democrat nominee John Kerry in Wisconsin. There was far more ticket-splitting in a less polarized era, but Michels’ dramatic underperformance in what was otherwise a big Republican year was eye-opening.
A Brutal Primary
In spite of this, a group of behind-the-scenes powerbrokers in Wisconsin GOP politics actively pushed Michels as a possible alternative to former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch when it became apparent in late 2021 that she would run away with the gubernatorial nomination.
The group, headed by former state and national Republican Party Chairman and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and longtime lobbyist and political consultant Bill McCoshen, began to gather support for the idea that Kleefisch simply could not beat Evers and another high-profile candidate needed to enter the race.
Priebus, who also served as finance chair for Ron Johnson's re-election campaign and was raising money for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, was alarmed by polling suggesting that Kleefisch was not nearly as strong a candidate as she was projecting. Her strategy for years had been to gather grassroots and institutional Republican support so as to effectively scare every other potential candidate out of the race.
This was largely unsuccessful, as insiders grew concerned and a groundswell of behind-the-scenes-opposition formed. In addition to Priebus and McCoshen, former Assembly Speaker John Gard launched an effort to find an alternative.
That October, former President Donald Trump released a statement urging former Congressman Sean Duffy to run for governor.
“Working hard to get very popular and capable Former Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin to run for Governor. He would be fantastic!” Trump said. “A champion athlete, Sean loves the people of Wisconsin, and would be virtually unbeatable.”
The statement, which seemed to come out of nowhere, was widely believed to have been influenced by Priebus, who still has the former President’s ear and has been one of his primary sources of information about Wisconsin politics.
Duffy, however, has a burgeoning media career and a new home in New Jersey and in early January said on “The Jay Weber Show” that while he was flattered by such a strong push from Trump, he would not run.
The very next day, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson announced that he was resigning as president of the University of Wisconsin System effective March 18th. The move was presumed to be a retirement: Thompson is, after all, 80 years old. But behind the scenes, Republican megadonor Diane Hendricks—one of Thompson’s biggest backers—was urging him to enter the governor’s race.
Meanwhile, a seemingly viable challenger to Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, entered the race in early January, but the group looking to defeat Kleefisch did not get behind him and instead began laying the groundwork for a Thompson run.
Their ace in the hole was a potential Donald Trump endorsement since Hendricks—one of his biggest donors—and Priebus have significant influence with him, especially on Wisconsin matters. A Trump endorsement, naturally, would all but clinch the nomination and Hendricks and Thompson met with Trump at his home at the Mar-a-Lago Club in the Spring.
Trump made it clear that he was going to endorse in the Wisconsin primary, and it was equally clear that he was not likely to endorse Kleefisch. Privately, Nicholson backer Richard Uihlein was pushing the former President to endorse him, and it was widely feared that, left to his own devices, Trump would endorse Assembly Representative Timothy Ramthun, whom Trump had called in December to thank for the work Ramthun had done in investigating the 2020 presidential election. If Trump was going to endorse, the thinking of the anti-Kleefisch group went, it should be a candidate who could win.
Because of his age, though, Thompson was unsure about the rigors of a grueling campaign, and Michels started floating his name as a possible alternative. News/Talk 1130 WISN’s Mark Belling reported that the two men met and decided that only one of them would run since both in the race would simply split the anti-Kleefisch vote at allow her to win easily.
On April 22nd, Michels filed paperwork to run and formally announced his candidacy. He immediately flooded the airwaves with ads reintroducing himself to primary voters as a “conservative outsider” in contrast with Kleefisch, widely seen in conservative circles as the Establishment GOP’s candidate of choice, especially after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told Nicholson that he “need[s] to not run for governor.”
Vos was concerned that a bitter primary would “hurt our chances to defeat Governor Evers,” as hotly contested Senate battles in both 2012 and 2018 allowed Senator Tammy Baldwin to easily win two terms against Republican candidates who were so financially tapped after winning the nomination that they were wholly unable to compete with her dollar-for-dollar.
Michels and his team, however, assured nervous Republicans that this wouldn’t be the case because of his extreme wealth and ability to self-fund a campaign. That, they argued, would free up donors to contribute more to Johnson’s Senate run since he was considered the single most vulnerable Republican up for re-election this year.
Privately, Michels was promising to spend upwards of $50 million of his own money to finance his run, something Kleefisch obviously couldn’t do. This alone, he said, made him a better choice. Yet because he had been out of the public eye for so long, he was forced to spend millions right out of the gate reintroducing himself to voters.
He attended Republican Party and grassroots events, but not nearly as many as Kleefisch, who had spent the four years since her 2018 defeat laying the groundwork for a run and meeting with virtually every person involved Wisconsin Republican politics. Michels didn’t have anywhere near that personal connection with rank-and-file voters, but he did have a literal Trump card.
A Massive Abortion Misstep
The day after the primary, in which Michels spent an estimated $15 million of his own money, Senator Johnson was on the air with a barrage of attack ads hitting his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, over his past statements on crime.Within a month, Johnson went from seven points down in the Marquette University Law School Poll to one point up. Michels didn’t move—registering 44 percent support in August and 44 percent in September.
Although he was able to stay on the air, he was flooded with attacks from Evers based primarily on his stance on abortion. Michels was caught flat-footed on what turned out to be one of the most significant issues in the race, and it cost him dearly. Rather than counter Evers’ attacks or shift the focus of the race to Evers’ radicalism on crime as Johnson had with Barnes, Michels needed to reintroduce himself to general election voters.
Because he entered the race late and did not spend much time with the grassroots, he had to spend precious weeks and even more precious dollars on ads that tried to define him while Evers was spending infinitely more defining Michels for him: He was an out-of-touch anti-abortion extremist who would implement a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia if elected.
Worse yet, Michels gave Evers the ammunition he needed. In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, WISN 12 reporter Matt Smith asked Michels about whether he supported Wisconsin’s abortion law, which was written in 1849 and bans abortions without any exception for the victims of rape or incest.
“The 1849 law is an exact mirror of my position and my position is an exact mirror of the 1849 law, which has an exception for the life of the mother,” he said.
“But you wouldn’t support exceptions for rape or incest?” Smith asked.
“Uhhhh, that’s correct,” answered Michels.
Those three words (technically two words and a sound) were played on a loop from the moment the primary was decided until September 23rd, when Michels’ campaign determined that his abortion position was so badly hurting him that he needed to change it.
On “The Dan O’Donnell Show,” Michels said that if the Legislature passed a bill banning abortions except those in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life and health of the mother, he would sign it.
“Yes, I would sign that bill,” he said. “I am pro-life. I make no apologies for that. I also understand that this is a representative democracy. And if the people—in this case the Legislature—brought a bill before me, as you just stated, I would sign that.”
It is, frankly, political malpractice to leave such a potent attack unanswered for nearly two months and then to make national news with an obvious and desperate-seeming flip-flop.
Major Money Problems
In that same interview, Michels admitted that he was taken aback by the sheer volume of money being spent against him.
“This race has gotten incredibly expensive,” Michels admitted when pressed about donor concerns that he was not putting nearly as much of his own fortune into his campaign as he had promised he would when he entered the race. “We’re doing everything we can to raise money, to keep up [with Evers’ and his allies’ spending]. I am continuing to self-fund at an aggressive level. We’re pulling out all the stops. I am working very hard.”
That was a curious line, especially since Michels then launched into a laundry list of all the campaign stops he had made. Because he was not spending anywhere near the $50 million he had claimed he would as a central part of his pitch to primary voters, a narrative had developed that Michels was not all in on his run and that he was, well, lazy on the campaign trail.
Ron Johnson campaign officials noted that while the Senator would do six events in a day, Michels would do three and seem to want to get home by 6:00 pm, but Michels staffers dispute this, saying Michels had a healthy work ethic. However, they concede that this narrative developed because Michels simply did not nearly put as much money into the general election as he did during the primary, and this translated to the widespread belief that he was not putting as much physical effort in either.
Whether or not Michels was working as hard as he could, it was clear he was not spending as much as he had promised, and Republican donors were put off by the fact that his campaign was asking for money after being repeatedly assured that they wouldn’t need to help him and could instead focus all of their dollars on Johnson.
Michels famously refused to take money from political action committees (PACs), but also did not supplement that with donations to his own campaign. By early September, money was a huge factor and translated not just to a 3-1 ad spending advantage for Evers, but also a massive edge in get-out-the-vote efforts.
Ironically, Republicans may have only themselves to blame for that. In 2015, the GOP-led Legislature passed and Governor Scott Walker signed into law a bill that significantly transformed Wisconsin’s campaign finance limits. Specifically, it allowed for individuals to make unlimited contributions to state and local parties and allowed for those parties to make unlimited donations to candidates. Almost instantly, out-of-state Democrat donors pumped millions of dollars into the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which then freely dispersed that money to statewide candidates and turned get-out-the-vote efforts—especially during early voting—into an art form.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin never seemed to take advantage of the loophole that Governor Walker had provided them, even as Democrats milked every last cent from every left-winger from Berkely to Brooklyn. Perhaps no candidate in state history was a bigger beneficiary than Evers, who had so much money to spend that Democrats collectively spent $1 million on Election Day alone.
The Wrong Man for the Moment
Michels never dug into his own pockets deeply enough to keep up, and this more than anything doomed him.After telling PACs he did not want their money and GOP megadonors that he did not need their money, he needed to spend millions more than he did. Moreover, because he was not active in and, truthfully, largely absent from Republican Party politics and grassroots functions in the 18 years between his statewide runs, he did not engender the sort of loyalty and love from the base that most Wisconsin Republicans enjoy.
This translated into a lack of both small-dollar donations and volunteer efforts. Because he entered the race so late, most of the veteran political operatives in the state had already taken jobs with Kleefisch, Nicholson, or Johnson, and Michels’ campaign staff was incredibly young and inexperienced. After the primary, when more veteran politicos joined the Michels team, they had a significant game of catch-up to play, especially on the ground.
Eventually, there was such a lack of volunteers helping out on voter contact and get-out-the-vote work that Michels was forced to hire workers from temp agencies. Democrats, meanwhile, had veritable armies of staffers from every liberal foundation and partisan organization imaginable racking up early votes in Dane and Milwaukee Counties.
To be sure, had Kleefisch won the primary she would have faced the exact same challenges—perhaps magnified by her inability to self-fund, but it became clear very early on in the general election that Michels was woefully unprepared to answer tough questions about his positions, especially the one that turned out to be quite possibly the most significant in the race.
The group working behind the scenes to draft an alternative to Kleefisch ultimately backed the wrong man.They assured the rest of the Wisconsin GOP that they knew best, that Kleefisch couldn’t possibly win, but they foisted on voters a candidate who for the second time failed to connect with them in any meaningful way and refused to fulfill his and his backers’ promises of massive self-funding that would negate Evers’ money advantage.
Money ultimately wins campaigns because it translates to ads, voter contacts, and get-out-the-vote work.Evers outspent and, as a result, was able to outwork Michels in all three. That, more than anything, proved to be the difference.
Ironically, the wealthiest candidate Republicans could have run ultimately just didn’t have enough money to win.