Wisconsin primary may shape elections in key battleground

Voters will choose a Republican nominee for Wisconsin governor on Tuesday who could reshape how elections are conducted in the marquee battleground, where former President Donald Trump is still pressing to overturn his 2020 loss and backing candidates he sees as allies.

Trump has endorsed businessman Tim Michels, a self-described outsider who has put $12 million into his own campaign, against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who has support from former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-Gov. Scott Walker. Both candidates falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged, though Kleefisch has said decertifying the results is “not constitutional,” while Michels said “everything will be on the table.”

The race to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is another proxy war between Trump and Pence, one-time partners now pursuing different futures for the Republican Party. They also backed opposing GOP rivals in primaries in Arizona and Georgia — swing states that like Wisconsin are expected to be critical in the 2024 presidential race, when both men could be on the ballot.

The primary comes a day after FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.

In the state’s Senate race, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is the likely Democratic nominee to face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, after Barnes’ top rivals dropped out of the race late last month. The matchup is among the last to be set before the November general election, when control of the currently 50-50 split Senate is up for grabs, and Democrats see Wisconsin as one of their best opportunities to flip a seat.

Trump also has backed a little-known challenger to the state’s most powerful Republican, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has rejected the former president’s pressure to decertify the 2020 results.

Tuesday’s outcomes have far-reaching consequences beyond Wisconsin, a state that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and where 2022 will be seen as a bellwether for the 2024 presidential race. The person elected governor this fall will be in office for the presidential election and will be able to sign or veto changes to election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The next governor and U.S. senator also may sway decisions on issues from abortion to education and taxes.

“We’re a 50-50 state and so every race in Wisconsin, just by definition, is going to be decided by a few percentage points one way or another,” said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. “And those few percentage points in Wisconsin may well determine what the course of the nation is in the coming years.”

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Minnesota Republicans are expected to choose Dr. Scott Jensen, a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic endorsed by the state GOP, to face Gov. Tim Walz. Vermont — the only state to never have a woman in its congressional delegation — is likely to nominate a woman for the state’s lone House seat. The winner will replace Rep. Peter Welch, who is vying for the seat held for over four decades by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is retiring. And in Connecticut, Republicans will pick opponents to face two-term Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

But the most-watched races will be in Wisconsin, where Trump has kept up his pressure campaign to cancel President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Biden won by nearly 21,000 votes, four years after Trump also narrowly won the state by roughly the same margin. The 2020 outcome has been upheld in two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple lawsuits.

Both Michels and Kleefisch have said overturning the 2020 election results is not a priority. But they have said they would dismantle the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin elections and would support prohibitions on voters having someone else turn in their absentee ballots, as well as ballot drop boxes located anywhere other than staffed clerk offices.

Evers has made voting and elections a focus of his own campaign, telling voters he’s the only candidate who will defend democracy and “we are that close to not having our vote count in the state of Wisconsin.”

Kleefisch is a former TV reporter who served with Walker for two terms, including when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees in the state in 2011, drawing huge protests and a failed recall attempt. She says she is the best prepared to win statewide in November and to enact conservative priorities, including investing more in police, expanding school choice programs and implementing a flat income tax.

During a campaign stop with Kleefisch last week, Pence said no other gubernatorial candidate in the U.S. is “more capable, more experienced, or a more proven conservative.”

Michels is co-owner of Wisconsin’s largest construction company and has touted his work to build his family’s business. He lost the 2004 Senate race to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and has been a major donor to GOP politicians.

At a rally on Friday, Trump praised Michels as an “incredible success story.” He criticized Kleefisch as part of the “failed establishment” and also took aim at Vos. He told supporters that Michels will win the primary “easily” and that he’s the better choice to defeat Evers.

Michels pledged that “we are going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin.” He also said he will bring “law and order” back to Wisconsin, criticized Evers’ handling of schools and blamed Biden for rising prices.

Voter Gary Steinbrecher, 62, said he cast his ballot Tuesday for Kleefisch because she opposes abortion and has “been around for a long time.” He also thinks she has the best chance of defeating Evers.

“I think she would appeal to the suburban women voters more than the other candidates,” said Steinbrecher, who is semi-retired.

Franklin Szpot, 42, voted for Michels. He said he appreciated that Michels is a business owner and that he served in the U.S. Army. Szpot also liked the candidate’s “to the point” commercials.

“It just seems like he is a no-nonsense kind of guy and that’s the kind of person we need in office right now,” he said.

GOP state Rep. Tim Ramthun is also making a long-shot bid for governor, and has made rescinding Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes for Biden the centerpiece of his campaign.

In the Senate race, Barnes is the overwhelming favorite after rivals including Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry quit the race. A Milwaukee native and former state legislator who would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator, Barnes says he wants to help rebuild the middle class and protect abortion rights. A state ban on abortion took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The race against Johnson is one of a few Senate toss-ups and already has been a fight between Barnes and Johnson, a millionaire and former owner of a plastics company who was first elected as part of the tea party movement in 2010.

Barnes has attacked Johnson for supporting a tax bill that benefitted wealthy donors and his own company, touting “wild conspiracy theories” about COVID-19 vaccines and for trying to deliver ballots from fake GOP electors to Pence on the day of the Capitol insurrection.

Johnson and Republicans have criticized Barnes as too liberal for Wisconsin, noting his endorsements from progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They have resurfaced moments from Barnes’ past, including a photo of him holding a T-shirt that reads “Abolish ICE,” or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Trump and Pence have split on gubernatorial candidates with mixed results. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp — he also rejected Trump’s pressure to overturn his 2020 loss — had Pence’s support as he defeated a Trump-endorsed challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. But Kari Lake won the Arizona primary last week with Trump’s backing, defeating a Pence-backed candidate after saying she would not have certified Biden’s victory there.

The candidate Trump endorsed to take on Vos, Adam Steen, has said he would decertify Biden’s victory.

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Burnett reported from Chicago. Reporter Gretchen Ehlke contributed from Thiensville, Wis.

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