BROOKFIELD, Wis. — The Republican gubernatorial primary in Wisconsin initially appeared to be Rebecca Kleefisch’s for the taking.
Kleefisch, the former lieutenant governor, launched a well-funded campaign nice and early, in September, and speedily commanded a lead over lesser-known opponents, enjoying significant name recognition from her eight years as Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s No. 2.
But in April, a co-owner of a successful family pipeline construction company, Tim Michels, jumped into the race, spent millions of dollars of his own money and won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Many thought he’d pull away.
That didn't happen, either.
Now, as voters head to the polls Tuesday in this pivotal battleground state, the race has turned into a dogfight. The Republicans are locked in a tight race, according to the latest polling. Michels and political groups supporting him have blanketed the airwaves in negative ads while Kleefisch races around the state holding events and urging supporters to knock on doors and turn out friends and family.
A third candidate, state Rep. Tim Ramthun, has polled behind. He has vocally backed Trump's futile quest to decertify the state's 2020 election results, which isn't possible or legal.
It’s all part of the final sprint in an intensely watched and close governor’s race that will determine who gets the chance to try to unseat Gov. Tony Evers, one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors in the country. The outcome of the general election will have implications for abortion rights and education, as well as elections. Trump, who lost Wisconsin and other swing states to President Joe Biden, has focused on handpicking candidates for statewide offices all over the country that have oversight of the vote as he eyes another bid for the presidency in 2024.
The race has emerged as a proxy war between Trump and the state’s establishment, including Walker and other non-Trump Republicans, like former Vice President Mike Pence — even though Michels and Kleefisch don’t diverge significantly on any one policy issue.
In just the past week, both the former president and his former No. 2 have descended on Waukesha County, the suburban Republican stronghold whose voters are likely key.
On Wednesday, Pence stumped for Kleefisch there with Walker, saying, “There is no candidate for governor in America that is more capable, more experienced or a more proven conservative than Rebecca Kleefisch.”
Two days later, Trump held a rally in Waukesha for Michels, bashing Kleefisch as the “handpicked candidate of the failed establishment, the RINOs, the Washington swamp.”
RINO is short for “Republicans in name only.”
Michels, for his part, used his time onstage at the rally to criticize Evers on crime and education while vowing, “We are going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin.” Michels, like Kleefisch, has vowed to eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a bipartisan organization that oversees elections in the state.
The rally came just days after Michels said he wouldn’t commit to endorse Trump if he ran for president again in 2024. The next day, Michels reversed course, vowing to back Trump if he ran again.
It was the second time in as many weeks that Michels appeared to put distance between himself and the former president, despite Trump’s June endorsement.
Michels, who has said he agrees with Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, said at a July 24 debate against Kleefisch and Ramthun that he wouldn’t prioritize "decertifying" Wisconsin’s election results as Trump has demanded.
“It’s not a priority,” Michels said at the debate, days after Trump said on his Truth Social website that Michels “has no chance” of winning the nomination if he isn’t “strong on the Rigged and Stolen Election.”
Michels backtracked again, saying days later at a candidate town hall that he’d consider signing a bill that would decertify the 2020 election results — even though there is no actual legal vehicle, under state or federal law, to rescind a state’s electoral votes.
It’s an apparent pattern that some Republican voters said gives them pause about supporting Michels, even though they remain devoted to Trump.
“It makes me think he’s just taking advantage of the endorsement,” said Bill Means, 74, a retired school administrator who had supported businessman and veteran Kevin Nicholson, who dropped out of the race in July.
Means, a two-time Trump voter, is now backing Kleefisch.
Referring to Michels, Stephen Butler, 36, an apartment manager from Kenosha, said: “He’s all over the place with Trump. If you can’t make up your mind on those kinds of things, how can you handle making the decisions you’ll need to make as governor?"
Butler, another two-time Trump voter, is also supporting Kleefisch.
Others said Trump’s endorsement was the absolute needle-mover on their choice.
“I’m gonna go with Trump, that’s my thing,” said Brenda Patton, of Waukesha, explaining her support for Michels.
Michels in recent days has held smaller events in northern Wisconsin — although his campaign has made a uniquely concerted effort to shield him from the media.
Meanwhile, Kleefisch has crisscrossed the state in the final days of the campaign, stumping Monday in Madison, Green Bay, Eau Claire, La Crosse and Brookfield, just west of Milwaukee, with a speech focused on combating inflation and crime and pushing school reform and election reform. She also nodded heavily to the Walker-Kleefisch record — including legislation still popular among conservative voters here that effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees and that allowed people to carry concealed weapons — while pointing out that Michels doesn’t have one at all.
“I have been tested, and I am ready to go — no training wheels,” Kleefisch said in an interview in Kenosha.
She slammed Michels as a part-time Wisconsin resident who didn’t have a presence during many of the state’s recent crises. Michels owns a home in Connecticut, where he lives part of the year.
“He hasn’t been here for Covid. He hasn’t been here for Kenosha” — where riots broke out in August 2020 following the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer — she said. “The people of the state want someone who has thought about these things in depth, has spoken with people in depth, has worked on these things in depth and is ready to go into the fight.”
Some Kleefisch supporters said those attack lines resonated.
“He’s a carpetbagger,” said Rick Eaton, a retired truck driver from Franklin. “It feels like he hasn’t really been involved in the future of Wisconsin. Hasn’t done much for the state.”
But politics watchers and strategists in the state said Kleefisch’s ties to Walker aren’t certain to push her over the finish line.
“I just am not sure Walker has the kind of clout he used to have,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin and the editor-in-chief of The Bulwark.
“If Michels does win, it will be a significant victory for Trump, where Republicans once rejected him,” he added, referring to the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the state’s 2016 Republican presidential primary, not Trump.
Chris Walker, an adviser to the Michels campaign, told NBC News in a statement that “Tim appeals to a wide swath of voters, including Republicans, Independents, and even disaffected Democrats.”
“He is endorsed by President Trump and former Governor Tommy Thompson, which shows he is the only candidate that can bring together the entire party, and bring in new voters who don’t usually vote Republican,” Walker said.
The latest polling reflects voters’ divided allegiances. An Emerson College Poll released Saturday found Kleefisch with the support of 36% of Republican primary voters, compared to 34% for Michels — within the margin of sampling error. Eight percent said they supported Ramthun, while 14% said they were undecided. When undecided voters were asked whom they were leaning toward, Kleefisch had 41% support, while Michels had 39%. A Marquette University Law School poll from June, after Trump’s endorsement, found Michels leading Kleefisch by 27% to 26% — also within the margin of error — among Republican voters and independents who said they’ll vote in the GOP primary.
Linda Larson, a Republican voter from Greendale who remains undecided in the governor’s race, said her top priority was “free and fair elections” — which she said made her want to support Michels, “because that’s Trump’s major issue, and it’s important to me, and Michels got his endorsement.” But Kleefisch, who has also made "election integrity" a top issue, “has a better shot at beating Evers in the fall,” Larson added.
Strategists warn that the prolonged fight threatens to divide Republicans heading into a general election for what many within the party see as a very winnable seat. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.
“If we don’t unite after this primary, we won’t be able to win and beat Evers,” said Republican strategist Bill McCoshen, who isn't affiliated with either candidate. “He may be considered vulnerable, but he’s also a likable guy who has good favorable ratings. If we come out of this, regardless of who wins, damaged and toxic and polarized, it’s going to help Evers.”