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In close Wisconsin governor's race, Tim Michels stays to the right. It may help him.

Michels has avoided moderating on certain flashpoint issues, including abortion, while pressing hard on those that appeal simultaneously to base GOP voters and independents.
Image:  Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor Tim Michels gives the thumbs up during his victory primary election night event on August 9, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
 Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor of Wisconsin, gives the thumbs-up during his victory primary election night event in Waukesha on Aug. 9.Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Im

On key issues like abortion and election denialism, Tim Michels, the Republican nominee for governor of Wisconsin, is not moving toward the political middle down the homestretch to Election Day.

It may end up helping him.

Traditionally, candidates have staked out positions in primary campaigns to appeal to the voters who comprise their party bases, only to moderate in general election campaigns to appeal to a broader field of voters.

Michels, following a pattern of other Republican candidates in governor’s races in states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, has not done so.

In fact, Michels has remained staunch in his support for an 1849 state law banning abortion in almost all cases, which went back into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. At a recent campaign event, he told supporters, “I’m not going to soften my stance on abortion,” despite national headwinds showing that the issue is a major motivator for Democratic and independent voters.

Wisconsin’s 173-year-old law makes performing an abortion a felony; doctors who perform the procedure face up to six years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. It makes an exception only to save the life of the woman — but not for her health or for a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.

During the primary, Michels echoed former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election and said he would consider signing a bill that would decertify the election results (even though doing so is not possible under state or federal law).

In recent days, he has again telegraphed support to and from prominent election deniers in the state. Over the weekend, he attended a rally where among those present were Michael Gableman, the Trump-backed architect of a 14-month investigation into the 2020 election in the state that yielded no evidence of widespread fraud, and Tim Ramthun, a state representative who centered his own unsuccessful bid for the nomination for governor on efforts to decertify the state’s 2020 election results, which is not possible or legal.

Strategists and politics watchers in Wisconsin said the moves may end up helping Michels, because they have created an opening for him to further elevate issues that might build upon voter enthusiasm among his base without alienating independent voters.

“On abortion, he keeps the party base by maintaining his position," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor and the director of the Marquette University Law School poll. "A change on the abortion issue might even be counterproductive, doesn’t help him with the base and doesn’t help him with moderates or independents."

Franklin’s latest poll, released last week, found that abortion policy and an “accurate vote count” were not even top-3 issues among Wisconsin's independent voters; they said they were far more concerned about inflation, crime and public education. A Siena College/Spectrum News poll released Tuesday found that just 7% of independent voters in the state said abortion was the most important issue in determining whom to vote for in November. (At the same time, both polls showed vast support among independents for enacting a more permissive abortion law than the 1849 law.)

While Michels has not explicitly leaned into rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election in recent weeks, his decision to stay close to other prominent election deniers in the state may be an attempt to keep boosting his credibility among Republican voters who still care deeply about the issue, Franklin and others said. Other than inflation, “accurate vote count” was the issue GOP voters cared about the most, according to the latest Marquette poll. The Siena College/Spectrum News poll out Tuesday found that just 16% of independent voters said “threats to our democracy” were the most important issue in determining whom to vote for. 

“He’s really keeping himself close enough to it to send the signals to get the approval of his base as it pertains to that issue, while also having, fairly studiously, not been loud or definitive on the issue since the primary ended,” Franklin said.

The fact that polls show the two issues are not crucial to independent voters in Wisconsin allows Michels to use them to energize his base while not alienating the diminishing — but nonetheless critical — number of independent voters on whom the election could hinge, strategists said.

“The thing that makes Wisconsin a unique beast is that, yes, while about 90% of running a winning race is about turning your base out, there really is still a small number of people here who can be persuaded. It’s not a ton, it used to be a lot, but because our races are so darn close they matter,” said Mark Graul, a Republican political strategist in Wisconsin not affiliated with either campaign.

“So I think Tim Michels is playing that exactly correctly. He’s already stated what his position on abortion is. The mistake would be to say one thing and then say another and make everyone mad,” Graul added. “Being able to not turn off the base while also knowing that it may very well be that independents aren’t actually voting on that issue in Wisconsin seems like [the] correct move.”

Image: Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels at an election-night rally on August 9, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Tim Michels at an election night rally Aug. 9 in Waukesha, Wis. Scott Olson / Getty Images

It could further benefit Michels that the issues his campaign has focused on most heavily in the general election — crime, inflation and education — are among the top issues prioritized by both Republicans and independents, according to polling.

“He can play offense on crime and education and inflation while remaining authentic on abortion and election integrity,” said Bill McCoshen, a Republican strategist who is informally advising the Michels campaign. “That is what you want to do — play offense, maintain authenticity — when you’re trying to knock off an incumbent.”

Franklin said: “It’s just a good issue for Michels. It lets him speak to the base and to independents at the same time.”

Michels is locked in a close race with Gov. Tony Evers, one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors in the country. RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average shows Evers leading Michels by 2.5 percentage points, within most of the included polls’ margins of error. Evers won in 2018 by fewer than 30,000 votes. President Joe Biden won in 2020 by fewer than 21,000 votes. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.

In Wisconsin, as in other states with closely watched governor’s races, the stakes for Evers are especially high. With two GOP-controlled branches of the Legislature, a Republican governor would wield broad power over the future of abortion and elections in the state.

Michels campaign adviser Chris Walker did not respond to questions about Michels’ strategy on abortion or election issues. 

“Our campaign is focused on delivering a stronger economy, better schools, and safer communities,” Walker said in a statement when asked about Michels’ recent statements about abortion and his stance on the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, an Evers campaign spokesperson said Michels was “content staking out radical positions” and “isn’t interested in being a governor who will bring our state together.”

“On everything from voting rights to abortion, Michels has staked out the most out-of-touch position possible, putting him at odds with his own party and rest of the state,” campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said in a statement.