Takeaways From Republican Wisconsin Gubernatorial Debate

From left, Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun participate in a televised Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate Sunday, July 24, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
From left, Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun participate in a televised Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate Sunday, July 24, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
View All (10)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor supported by Donald Trump, a former two-term lieutenant governor endorsed by dozens of lawmakers and a state representative pushing for decertification of the state's 2020 presidential election results largely agreed on most issues in their first debate Sunday,

The debate between Trump-backed Tim Michels, Rebecca Kleefisch and state Rep. Tim Ramthun came just over two weeks before the Aug. 9 primary. A Marquette University Law School poll last month showed Michels and Kleefish in a tight race, with the winner advancing to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Takeaways from Sunday's debate:

DECERTIFICATION OF 2020 ELECTION

Even though Michels is supported by Trump, who continues to push for decertification of his loss in Wisconsin, Michels said he would not pursue that as governor. Kleefisch also said she would not try to decertify President Joe Biden's win, a move that attorneys and Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly said is unconstitutional and can't be done.

“It’s not a priority,” Michels said of decertification. “My priorities are election integrity, crime reduction and education reform. ... I have to focus on beating Tony Evers this fall and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Kleefisch said she thought the 2020 election was “rigged,” but would not try to decertify the results.

Ramthun, who has based his candidacy around decertification, was the only one who said he would try to do it.

“I’m surprised I’m the only one," he said.

Biden's win in the state has withstood by two partial recounts, numerous lawsuits, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law form and an investigation by a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice hired by Republicans. None of the candidates offered any new evidence Sunday of widespread fraud.

ABORTION

All of the candidates support an 1849 Wisconsin law banning abortion that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That law only provides an exception to protect the life of the mother.

Kleefisch, noting that she is the only woman in the race, said she did not support other exemptions, but also that “Miscarriage care and ectopic pregnancy treatment are not abortion.”

Ramthun said he would emphasize adoption as an option for women with unplanned pregnancies, while Michels said he would bolster counseling and other services to help those women.

INSIDER vs. OUTSIDER

Kleefisch, who served eight years as lieutenant governor under Scott Walker, touted her experience in his administration, mentioning the passage of the Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.

She called herself an “effective and conservative reformer," noting that she won statewide four times. That includes a 2011 recall election.

Michels, who along with his brothers co-owns the state's largest construction company Michels Corp., touted his outsider experience and said he would “turn Madison upside down.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot of fraud and abuse and inefficiencies in government," he said. "I’m going to find it, I know how to do it.”

He also took a subtle jab at Kleefisch, without mentioning her by name, in his closing statement.

“If you want to keep politics as usual, vote for the usual politicians,” he said.

AWKWARD MOMENTS

Michels was asked repeatedly if he supports giving incentives to an Obama-era program that prevents the deportation of thousands of people brought into the U.S., but did not give an answer. People in the program are often referred to as “dreamers.” The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the moderators referred to it by its acronym DACA.

“Yes or no for DACA students as well, the incentives?” moderator Charles Benson asked Michels.

“What kind of students?” he replied.

“DACA,” moderator Shannon Sims said.

“DACA? DACA students?" Michels responded. "I want to look at the details on everything before I agree to anything.”

Ramthun was asked about his comment in March indicating that he wanted to punch Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the nose after Vos kicked Ramthun out of a meeting related to the 2020 election results. The question drew loud applause from the audience and Ramthun said his comments were misinterpreted.

Ramthun said Vos had acted like a bully and he said bullies should be punched in the nose.

“I didn't say I wanted to punch him in the nose,” Ramthun said. “I said you have to push back and say no."