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'Trump owns him': Governor's race in battleground Wisconsin opens with gloves off

The outcome of the race between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels will have major implications for abortion rights, education and elections.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state capitol on May 27, 2022, in Madison.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the State Capitol in Madison on May 27.Scott Bauer / AP file

MADISON, Wis. — With the matchup set in Wisconsin’s election for governor, the two main competitors immediately began honing their attacks on each other Wednesday, commencing a three-month sprint to November with mudslinging in what promises to be one of the most consequential races in the country.

Just hours after Republican voters chose construction executive Tim Michels as their nominee, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, kicked off a tour of the state by slamming his opponent as a puppet of former President Donald Trump who has misleadingly painted himself as a champion of blue-collar workers.

“He can wear a blue shirt so that he can have a blue collar. But at the end of the day, I’m not quite sure that someone of his status, with houses all across the country, can say, 'I’m just one of you,'” Evers said at a campaign event Wednesday morning in Madison — the first of 10 across the state over the coming days. The remark was in reference to the fact that Michels owns a home in Connecticut, where he lives part of the year.

Evers also hit his opponent for his embrace of Trump, who endorsed Michels in June and held a rally for him last week. 

“Trump owns him. He owns Trump,” Evers said. “That’s his problem, not mine.”

Meanwhile, the Michels camp attacked Evers for his “disastrous record” and tied him to President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings in the state have sunk since he took office.

“Tony Evers and Joe Biden are going to desperately attempt to do everything they can to distract the people of Wisconsin from their massive failures,” Michels campaign adviser Chris Walker said in a statement. “This race is about Tony Evers and his disastrous record.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between filling up the gas tank or getting groceries, or see headlines of crime at 30-year highs, but in Tony Evers’ Wisconsin, that’s just what we have. He’s a failure, and he has to go,” Walker added.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels gives the thumbs up during his primary election night event at on Aug. 9, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.
Tim Michels, the Republican nominee for governor, gives the thumbs up at his primary election night event Tuesday in Waukesha, Wis.Joshua Lott/The Washington Post / via Getty Images file

Michels, a co-owner of a successful family pipeline construction company, said in his victory speech Tuesday night that his general election campaign would focus on “standing up for the hard-working people of Wisconsin.” Michels said such workers “have been left behind by the Democratic Party that just wants to focus on the social issues.”

“We need an outsider and a businessman and a veteran in the governor’s office,” he said Tuesday night, adding that “jobs and the economy are going to be my No. 1 priority.” Evers said Wednesday that type of rhetoric was an attempt by Michels to pivot to the center after having spent the primary embracing Trump’s stolen election lies.

“The idea that he might try to become a moderate Republican is just beyond belief,” Evers said Wednesday. “He’s not going to be able to stand in front of all these microphones and say, ‘I forgot to tell you folks that I’m a moderate Republican’ — that’s just not in the cards.

“He’s not that. He’s taken positions that clearly he cannot back off [of]. And his relationship with Trump is going to drive his campaign,” Evers added.

Throughout the primary, Michels repeatedly said there was fraud in the 2020 election, echoing Trump’s disproven claims. While he waffled at times, Michels also said he is open to efforts to decertify Biden’s win in the state, even though there is no legal vehicle, under state or federal law, to rescind a state’s electoral votes.

Even though the stolen election claims have been a heavy theme of his campaign, Michels at his victory rally Tuesday night did not once mention election integrity, voter fraud or the 2020 election more broadly.

Rather, he hammered at messaging that he was “an outsider and a businessman and a veteran” whose focus “will be to take care of the hard-working people of Wisconsin.”

The race is likely to be one of the closest — and most closely watched — contests in the U.S. The outcome will have major implications for abortion rights and education, as well as elections. Trump, who lost Wisconsin and other swing states to Biden, has focused on promoting candidates like Michels for statewide offices that have oversight of the vote as he eyes another bid for the presidency in 2024.

Evers, for his part, is seen as one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors in the country; the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the contest as a toss-up. A Marquette Law School Poll from June found Evers leading Michels in a hypothetical matchup by 48% to 41%, with 8% undecided. 

The pivotal battleground of Wisconsin is among the states where Biden had his narrowest victories in 2020, winning by fewer than 21,000 votes. In 2018, Evers beat Republican Gov. Scott Walker by fewer than 30,000 votes, having run what some strategists called at the time a savvy, low-key and state-focused campaign emphasizing problem-solving and an agenda geared toward improving education and infrastructure.

Evers has in recent months teased that approach anew, talking often about his record of increasing public school funding, cutting taxes for many middle-class families, repairing roads and bridges and making efforts to fight inflation — all of which he mentioned Wednesday. 

But this time around, Evers has also regularly been on the attack against state Republicans’ support — including Michels’ — of the 1849 abortion ban that went back into effect after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, as well as efforts by many Republican Trump allies in the state who continue fighting the results of the 2020 election. Those topics were at the center of attacks against Michels from groups supporting Evers on Tuesday night after his primary win.

“Tim Michels is a Trump-endorsed MAGA radical who opposes gun safety measures to keep our schools and communities safe, embraces baseless election conspiracy theories, and wants to ban abortions without exceptions for rape or incest,” Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Noam Lee said in a statement late Tuesday.

Republican groups supporting Michels, meanwhile, appeared to mirror their candidate in starting out the general election by focusing on the economy.

“Tired of having to choose between gas and groceries as Democrats propose more inflationary policies, Wisconsin families, farmers, and small businesses from Superior to Southside Milwaukee are ready to elect leaders who will put them first,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.