Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week:
With three weeks to go until the primary election for governor, the Republican race just took the last turn toward the finish line and the cars are starting to swerve with melting tires and engines are smoking. I will forgo any more hackneyed race car metaphors for the remainder of the column and allow the reader to conjure their own relevant imagery.
In a somewhat surprising twist, Kevin Nicholson dropped out last week. Although his name will still appear on the ballot, he is no longer campaigning and has withdrawn himself from consideration. With a consistent 10% of the Republican electorate supporting him, he acknowledged that his odds of winning were slim. Also, in correctly understanding the mood of the Republican base this year, he stated that he did not want to go negative on his opponents in an effort to change the election’s dynamics.
Nicholson affirmed his commitment to support whichever Republican wins the nomination, which is also the mood that most Republicans are in this year. In a year when frustrated Republicans are looking for an outsider to shake up Madison, Nicholson was the only true outsider and could not attract enough support to win. His withdrawal from the race was done in a smart and classy way such that we hope to see him remain a significant figure in Wisconsin Republican politics for years to come. With Timothy Ramthun still struggling to get more than 3% support, the primary election is really down to two Republican juggernauts — Tim Michels and Rebecca Kleefisch. Up until last week, all of the candidates had been working very hard to stay positive and focused on how bad Governor Tony Evers has been for Wisconsin. After pouring money into advertising with a message that is resonating with voters, recent poling seems to indicate that Michels is pulling into the lead. This has triggered a change in the campaign with Kleefisch and her surrogates beginning to take some negative shots at Michels.
Negative campaigning is a necessary and important part of politics. While voters always carp about negative ads, they are also reliably swayed by them. Politics has never been pickleball. Negative campaigning also serves an important role in making sure that the voters are aware of a candidate’s bad spots before casting their votes. After all, the candidate is not going to go negative on themselves, so it is up to the candidate’s opponents to do so. It is up to the voters to decide if the negative aspects of a candidate are legitimate and important. Negative campaigning is particularly important in a primary election so that the eventual nominee has been properly vetted and considered before entering the general election. While the whole process can be unseemly, it is the best way to weed out unseemly candidates if it is done well.
The Kleefisch campaign is criticizing Michels for being a leader in industry trade groups that have supported increasing infrastructure spending and the increased taxes that go with it. Michels claims that while he served in leadership on behalf of his family’s company, he has never personally supported raising taxes. Both assertions may be true. Interestingly, Kleefisch is not attacking Michels for the well-documented fact that he has been a part-time resident of Wisconsin for several years with a large home on the East Coast. Evers will surely attack Michels for that if he is the nominee, but Kleefisch is keeping her fire on perceived policy differences.
What is really happening is a continuation of the generational and ideological clash in the Wisconsin Republican electorate. With support from the old Republican guard like Tommy Thompson and coming from the conventional Big Business-Republican symbiosis, Michels represents an older style of conservatism. With support from the new Republican guard like Scott Walker and coming from a grass roots with a sharper edge, Kleefisch represents the modern conservative mold. Both candidates come from established wings of the Wisconsin Republican Party that have been wrestling for supremacy for almost 20 years.
While not preordained, it is probable that whoever the Republican nominee is will oust Governor Evers and set the direction of the state Republican Party for years to come. Do Wisconsin’s Republicans want Thompson Republicanism or Walker Republicanism?