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Former GOP lieutenant governor launches bid to oust Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers

Rebecca Kleefisch, who served under Gov. Scott Walker, gives her party its first well-known candidate in a major 2022 race.
Image: Rebecca Kleefisch
Rebecca Kleefisch speaks at an election night event in Pewaukee, Wis., on Nov. 7, 2018.Morry Gash / AP file

Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott Walker, announced Thursday that she will seek the state’s Republican nomination for governor next year.

"I’m a mom, a cancer survivor and someone who’s had to clip coupons to help pay the bills every month," Kleefisch said in a launch video. "I’m on your side because I’ve walked in your shoes."

A TV news anchor in Milwaukee before entering politics, Kleefisch offers Republicans a well-known candidate to run against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who narrowly unseated Walker in 2018. The close result that year, followed by Joe Biden’s slim Wisconsin victory over Donald Trump in the presidential election, ensures the 2022 race for governor will command national attention.

Kleefisch's video opened with images from the fiery protests and unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake last year in Kenosha.

"Tony Evers’ entire term has been marked by failure and weakness," she said, criticizing his response to the crisis.

Walker, with whom Kleefisch survived a 2012 recall election triggered by the then-governor’s fight with public-employee unions, said in 2019 that Kleefisch would make a “hell of a great governor.” But Walker’s blessing will not spare Kleefisch what could be a messy primary fight.

State Rep. John Macco and Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who worked for former Gov. Tommy Thompson, are considering campaigns. And Kevin Nicholson, who lost a Senate primary in 2018, would most likely run for governor if U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson — a staunch Trump defender who described the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as “by and large peaceful protest” other than some “agitators” — seeks re-election next year.

Reince Priebus — the former Republican National Committee chairman who served as Trump’s first White House chief of staff and has been mentioned as a gubernatorial prospect — told conservative Wisconsin talk radio host Jay Weber this week that he’s “not planning” to run. Priebus, a past Wisconsin GOP chairman, also praised Kleefisch.

“She's very good, I think, on television and in front of audiences, which would be night and day compared to a guy who's not a leader, who isn't very exciting,” said Priebus, drawing contrasts between Kleefisch and Evers.

A poll last month by Marquette Law School found 50 percent of voters approved of Evers’ job performance. A plurality of voters, 46 percent, had a favorable opinion of the governor. His re-election campaign team and allies signaled this week that they would campaign against Kleefisch by branding her as an extension of the politically turbulent Walker era.

“Gov. Evers is someone who is just trusted as a good person, by voters across the political spectrum, and it seems like Kleefisch is intent on running a very niche campaign oriented to primary voters,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said.

Kleefisch has been preparing her gubernatorial bid for months, traveling the state to meet with GOP activists and using her nonprofit organization — the 1848 Project, named for the year Wisconsin became a state — to advance conservative policy ideas. A 16-page agenda her group released last week includes broad pitches for “medical freedom” and “election reform” at a time when opposition to Covid-19 vaccine mandates and baseless claims about widespread voter fraud are energizing the Republican base.

“Her record isn’t a mystery to anyone, and she has only become more radical since leaving office,” Evers spokesperson Sam Roecker said of Kleefisch. “Gov. Evers has taken bold action to not only clean up the mess she left behind, but he’s moving Wisconsin forward by making record investments in transportation and broadband expansion, restoring the state’s funding commitment to public schools and supporting small businesses across the state.”

Kleefisch’s candidacy is the first piece of a complicated 2022 puzzle for Wisconsin Republicans. Johnson’s intentions are the biggest mystery. The two-term senator, who already has Trump’s endorsement for a third if he runs again, is in no hurry to decide. That has put Nicholson — who said he will run for governor or for Senate, depending on Johnson’s plans — in a potentially awkward position. Whichever office he seeks might seem like his second choice.

“Our society is dangerously off kilter, this is not a time to play games, and I’ll run for one of these offices because we need people capable of doing hard things to lead,” Nicholson said Wednesday in a statement provided by a spokesperson. “Insiders, their endorsements and back room deals aren’t going to win general elections in 2022, and I advise the Republican establishment in Wisconsin to remember that, or risk learning the hard way again.”