Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week.
If you turn on your television this week or browse a few Wisconsin websites, you are going to be inundated with ads about Tim Michels, who has announced that he is running for governor as a Republican. A Republican nomination that Rebecca Kleefisch was cruising to win has turned into an intramural brawl to take on the feckless Gov. Tony Evers in what looks like a red wave election year.
The story of Michels’ announcement is swirling in the smoke of backroom Republican politics. Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has been working throughout the state since losing office in 2018 with a clear intention of running for governor. She has traveled the state, supported Republican causes, and remained a potent political figure in Republican circles. When she officially announced that she was running for governor, prominent Republicans throughout the state lined up to endorse her. She hoped that her strength would freeze out other contenders. It did not.
In a year in which a Republican stands a good chance of becoming governor, more Republicans threw their hats in the ring. Kevin Nicholson began running for governor after Sen. Ron Johnson announced his re-election. Nicholson wanted to be a senator but settled for governor. Nicholson’s campaign is focused on being the anti-establishment Republican who can appeal to the Trump wing of the party. After a dust up in Madison, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun entered the race on a platform of election integrity. He wants to relitigate the 2020 election and is also appealing to the anti-establishment Trump voters. His entry cleaved off the more radical fringe of Trump voters who might have otherwise voted for Nicholson. That is how the race sat for two months. Now comes Michels. Despite Kleefisch’s strengths, the buzz in the backrooms of the Republican hive was that Kleefisch had been unable to seal the deal — whatever that means. Her fundraising has lagged expectations and she was not connecting with the Republican base. That was the buzz despite rolling reports that Kleefisch was a hit at every event she attended. Still, the Republican bigwigs thought they needed a ringer.
Allegedly after meeting to discuss the race, former Gov. Tommy Thompson decided to bow out and let the younger Tim Michels jump into the race. Michels ran once before for statewide office 18 years ago and lost, but he has been a Republican financier throughout his adult life.
What is a Republican voter to do? It is always wise to use the time-tested rubric of William F. Buckley to vote for the, “most right, viable candidate who can win.” In a projected red wave election, the aperture of “who can win” is a little wider than most years, but the rubric holds.
Ramthun is certainly right, but is not a viable candidate who can win. Underfinanced with little statewide name recognition and a narrow appeal, he cannot win.
Nicholson is viable, but questions remain on his ideology and ability to win. As a former liberal who converted to conservatism (as many people do), he has been involved in conservative activism since bursting on the scene in 2018 to lose the Republican primary for Senate. Still, talking is not doing and Nicholson has never held elected office where his conversion could be tested. Electing him to one of the most powerful governorships in the nation should not be the first test. Also, with a narrow appeal to anti-establishment Trump voters, his ability to win a statewide election is questionable.
Kleefisch meets all of the criteria. She is a proven conservative who never wavered even in the withering fire of the early Scott Walker administration. She has been indefatigable in her support of conservative causes and conservative candidates. She is not running on issues of the past, but on conservative issues that matter now like school choice, election integrity, government reform, and in a year in which the Supreme Court might push abortion policy back to the states, Kleefisch is ardently pro-life. She is the real deal who we can confidently expect to move conservative policy if elected. She has already won a statewide race and appeals to a broad electorate.
I am firmly in the Kleefisch camp, but an open mind is a healthy mind, but as the old sales saying goes, Michels needs to offer a compelling reason to change. Going back to the Buckley rubric, Michels is definitely viable as a rich candidate who can self-finance his campaign. He has not proven that he can win a statewide election, but in a red wave year, it is probable that he would. The real questions are about his ideology and grit.
No doubt that Michels is conservative with a stellar pedigree. A veteran and businessman who has supported conservatives for decades, there is no doubt as to his core conservatism. But his family business is also one of the largest government contractors in the world. Will he be a champion for restraining government spending even when that spending flows into his family fortune? Perhaps.
Also, with the whirls of proverbial cigar smoke still wafting about him from the Republican backrooms, will Michels be the kind of conservative crusader Wisconsin had in Walker or Florida has in DeSantis? Perhaps. If Kleefisch was not in the race, Michels might be the best choice. But Kleefisch is in the race, so why should conservatives take a chance on Michels when they have a sure bet with Kleefisch?
The next 15 weeks before the primary election will be saturated with the hot politics of a contested primary election. Primaries can be good and healthy for a party to sharpen ideas and fortify positions. When it comes to making a decision, actions matter more than words and prior performance is the best predictor of future performance. Vote accordingly.