WAUKESHA, Wis. — Businessman Tim Michels has won Wisconsin’s Republican primary for governor, NBC News projects, advancing to a general election against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that will be among the most consequential in the country.
Michels, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, overcame the deep reservoir of establishment support around Rebecca Kleefisch, the state’s former lieutenant governor. State Rep. Tim Ramthun, who has vowed to challenge the results, finished in a distant third place.
It’s another swing state victory for Trump, who continues to lie about his losses in Wisconsin and other battlegrounds in 2020 while aiming to install allies he hopes will be loyal if he mounts another White House bid in 2024. Michels has embraced Trump’s debunked claims that a second term was stolen from him. And while he’s waffled at times, Michels has said he is open to efforts to decertify President Joe Biden’s win in the state, even though there is no actual legal vehicle, under state or federal law, to rescind a state’s electoral votes.
Evers was renominated without opposition.
Michels' supporters — gathered inside a small catering hall in Waukesha, a Republican stronghold whose voters are key in the primary race — sipped drinks and munched on sliders and other sandwiches as they waited for results Tuesday night. As Michels skated out to a lead, an increasingly amped-up audience broke into sporadic and enthusiastic chants of “U-S-A” and celebratory screams.
Moments after NBC News and other outlets called the race for him, Michels took the stage, telling the cheering crowd that as governor, "my number one priority will be to take care of the hard working people of Wisconsin.”
His general election campaign, he added, would focus on “standing up for the hard working people of Wisconsin.”
“They have been left behind by the Democratic Party that just wants to focus on the social issues,” Michels said. “We need an outsider and a businessman and a veteran in the governor’s office."
Michels also acknowledged Kleefisch and Ramthun as “tremendous” candidates and thanked Trump for his support. However, he did not once mention election integrity, the 2020 election, voter fraud, or efforts to decertify the 2020 election — all favorite topics of the former president.
The co-owner of a successful family pipeline construction company, Michels had tread cautiously in the closing weeks of the race, sending mixed messages about how much he was willing to abide Trump’s pressure to back decertification of the state's 2020 election results. Michels and Kleefisch had both echoed Trump’s debunked claims of voter fraud during the primary. Ramthun, however, was the most vocal on such issues.
Kleefisch’s list of endorsers included Scott Walker, the former governor she served with, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s involvement triggered another GOP proxy war between Trump and his former No. 2, who resisted pressure to overturn the 2020 election and is believed to be laying the groundwork for his own 2024 presidential bid.
Some Kleefisch voters who spoke with NBC News in the days leading to Tuesday's primary said they were impressed with the work she and Walker did together. Others echoed her concerns that Michels, who owns a home in Connecticut and lives part of the year there, hadn't been fully engaged in the crises Wisconsin has dealt with in recent years.
Bill Means, a retired school administrator from Pleasant Prairie, called Michels a “Johnny-come-lately with lots of money” and a “partial-year resident.”
Michels voters, on the other hand, consistently said they were drawn to his experience as an “outsider” businessman who, until this race, had largely stayed out of politics — though a few said Trump’s endorsement made a difference in their decision to support him.
“I found him refreshing,” said Carol Smith, a retired counselor from Oconomowoc. “I think either of them would represent Wisconsin well but I just like that he’s an outsider.”
Michels is the latest Trump-endorsed candidate for governor to advance to the general election in a battleground narrowly won by Biden in 2020, joining Kari Lake in Arizona, Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. Trump's efforts to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who refused to overturn the state’s election results, failed in a primary this year.
"After a scorched earth primary that’s seen constant attacks and a dizzying race to the radical right, the Republican Party has chosen the most extreme and divisive nominee possible, one that will tell Donald Trump anything just to keep his endorsement," Evers campaign manager Cassi Fenili said in a statement emailed shortly after the race was called.
Paul Farrow, the Wisconsin GOP chair, characterized the competitive primary as a strength.
“Unlike the Democrats, who didn’t trust their primary voters and pressured their candidates to fall in line, we are grateful that Republican voters were able to make their own informed choices thanks to our candidates’ willingness to step up to the plate and bring their unique perspectives to the table,” Farrow said in a statement emailed by the state party.
Wisconsin was also home Tuesday to a Trump revenge mission against state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has refused to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. Trump last week endorsed Vos’ primary rival Adam Steen. The Associated Press called the race for Vos just before midnight.
There was less suspense, meanwhile, in the Senate races. Democrats in recent weeks cleared the field for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who will face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally, in another key matchup this fall. Both have won primaries in which they faced marginal opposition, NBC News projects.
Connecticut, Minnesota and Vermont also are holding primaries Tuesday.
In Connecticut, Trump-endorsed Leora Levy had won the GOP Senate primary, NBC News projects. She goes on to face Democratic incumbent Richard Blumenthal in the heavily Democratic state.
In Vermont’s at-large congressional district, Democratic state Sen. Becca Balint will face Republican Liam Madden, NBC News projects. Balint, the Vermont Senate’s first openly gay president pro tempore, is heavily favored make history this fall — Vermont is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.
The House seat is open because Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, is seeking the seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat. Welch won the Democratic Senate primary Tuesday and will face GOP nominee Gerald Malloy in the general election, NBC News projects.
In Minnesota, which has leaned Democratic in recent years but can be competitive, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz will face Republican Scott Jensen, a physician and former state senator, NBC News projects. Republicans also nominated Jim Schultz, a political newcomer, to face Attorney General Keith Ellison this fall.
Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District also is hosting a special election Tuesday to fill the remaining months of Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term. Hagedorn, a Republican, died in February. Republican Brad Finstad, a former state legislator and U.S. Agriculture Department official, beat Democrat Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel Foods, NBC News projects.
In a twist, Finstad and Ettinger also won primaries Tuesday to set up a November general election for a full two-year term to represent a redrawn 1st District that takes effect next year.
Henry J. Gomez reported from Cleveland, Ohio, and Adam Edelman reported from Waukesha, Wisconsin.
CORRECTION (Aug. 9, 2022, 7:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a candidate for governor of Wisconsin. He is Tim Ramthun, not Rathmun.