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As Wisconsin GOP governor's primary nears, another Trump-Pence proxy war emerges

Their latest duel is further dividing the party in a swing state where the Governor’s Mansion is within reach.
President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the White House on April 3, 2020.
President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House on April 3, 2020.Yuri Gripas / Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

With less than two weeks to go before the Aug. 9 election, Wisconsin’s Republican primary for governor has shape-shifted into the latest proxy war between former President Donald Trump and his former No. 2, Mike Pence.

In the past two days, Trump and Pence have made major moves that further pit the two leading candidates in the race — and themselves — against each other.

Trump announced plans Tuesday to hold a rally on Aug. 5 with businessman Tim Michels, whom he endorsed for governor last month. Then, on Wednesday, Pence endorsed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the race, calling her “the only candidate that will deliver a stronger and more prosperous Wisconsin.”

Some Wisconsin Republicans say the developments will further divide the party in a state where the Governor’s Mansion is within reach for the eventual GOP candidate.

GOP strategist Bill McCoshen, who isn’t affiliated with either of the two Republican campaigns, said, “It’s very hard for the Republican Party to come back together on Aug. 10 after this.” He said the growing divisions within the GOP in Wisconsin were “my biggest fear.”

Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin and the editor-in-chief of The Bulwark, said: “This is all another indication of how Trump’s influence can be damaging. Rather than boosting Republicans in general, it further divides the Republicans from one another. It’s going to allow MAGA world to label Kleefisch as a Mike Pence RINO, which would have been inconceivable one year ago." ("RINO" is short for "Republicans in name only.")

The Wisconsin race is just the latest closely watched swing-state contest in which Trump and Pence have thrown their support behind competing candidates. It's a pattern that political operatives have said serves as a test of voter support for either Trump or another GOP candidate, like Pence, as both men weigh potential White House runs, as well as competing visions for the future of the party — even though Michels and Kleefisch don’t diverge significantly on any one policy issue.

“I don’t think Pence gains or loses anything unless [Kleefisch] wins — both the primary and the general — because it makes him seem well-positioned in Wisconsin. If she loses, I don’t think it has a major impact on him,” McCoshen said. But Trump, he added, “is still an 800-pound gorilla,” meaning that “his clout … is a little more at risk.”

Pence and Trump have also endorsed opposing candidates in GOP primaries for governor in Arizona and Georgia.

Pence endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson for governor of Arizona this month, putting him at odds with Trump, who has backed Kari Lake, a 2020 election denier. After he endorsed Robson, Pence appeared alongside her at a border security event. Days later, Trump held a rally with Lake and other Trump-aligned down-ballot candidates in Arizona (the rally had been scheduled to occur before Pence’s appearance, but it was postponed after Trump’s ex-wife Ivana Trump died).

Their dueling endorsements in Arizona and Wisconsin closely followed public hearings by the House Jan. 6 committee, which revealed the extent to which Trump supported rioters yelling for Pence’s execution after he refused to overturn the 2020 election results.

Meanwhile, in Georgia’s race for governor this summer, Pence endorsed incumbent Brian Kemp, who wound up winning the nomination over Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue.

Wisconsin vs. Georgia, Arizona

There are signs, however, that Trump’s influence is playing out differently in Wisconsin.

Unlike in Arizona, where Trump’s preferred candidates have sprinted to align with his wishes to re-litigate the 2020 election, some Wisconsin Republicans’ reception of Trump’s coming visit already appears to be somewhat muted.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is a Trump ally, but he said he wouldn’t attend Michels' rally with Trump because “I do not endorse candidates in contested primaries.”

While Lake and Perdue — Trump’s picks in Arizona and Georgia — emphatically embraced his lies about the 2020 election, Michels has appeared more cautious.

Although Michels has suggested he agrees with Trump's claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, Michels said at a recent debate that he wouldn’t prioritize decertifying Wisconsin’s election results, which Trump has repeatedly demanded. Michels also didn’t mention Trump’s name during the debate.

“It’s not a priority,” Michels said at the debate Sunday, 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.”

And unlike in Arizona and Georgia, where the establishment Republican candidates running against Trump’s picks have put distance between themselves and the former president, Kleefisch sought Trump’s endorsement and has repeatedly espoused rhetoric similar to Trump's with her rhetoric about the 2020 election.

Both the Michels and the Kleefisch campaigns have rejected the characterizations of their primary race as a proxy war. “There is no proxy war in Wisconsin," said Chris Walker, an adviser to the Michels campaign, adding, “The battle in Wisconsin is to defeat Tony Evers," the Democratic governor.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesperson for Kleefisch, said in a statement: “This campaign is not a proxy war between anyone; it is especially not a referendum on President Trump. Rebecca has nothing but respect for President Trump and believes he was one of the greatest presidents on conservative policy reforms in our lifetime."

A close race

Former Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels at a televised Wisconsin Republican governor’s debate in Milwaukee on Sunday. Morry Gash / AP file

In Wisconsin, Kleefisch commanded an early lead after her launch in September, enjoying significant name recognition from having been Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s lieutenant governor and having benefited from Walker’s reputation as a reliable conservative among Republicans in the state.But Michels, the owner of a successful pipeline construction company who jumped into the race in April, has sunk millions of dollars of his own money into his campaign.

Recent polls indicate the race has tightened. The latest Marquette University Law School poll from June, after Trump's endorsement, found Michels leading Kleefisch by 27% to 26% — well within the margin of sampling error — among Republican voters and independents who said they’ll vote in the GOP primary. A third candidate, state Rep. Tim Ramthun, polled in the single digits.

Early polling for the general election also suggests a close race. The latest Marquette poll found Evers, the incumbent Democrat, beating Kleefisch by 47% to 43% and Michels by 48% to 41%. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.

That, to many Wisconsin Republicans, signals that Republicans can’t afford to let divisions linger.

“Bringing the party together after this is not going to be an easy task,” said McCoshen, the strategist. “But it’s crucial, because Democrats love the skirmish on the Republican side. It's been messy, and these final 12 days are going to be really messy. I'm sure they're loving what they're seeing."

Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said, “Any last hope of Wisconsin Republicans uniting around one candidate just flew out the window, now that the GOP primary has turned into a Trump-Pence proxy war."

“With less than two weeks until primary day, Wisconsin Republicans are more divided than ever, and the mudslinging between candidates is just heating up,” she said.