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Thompson, Trump endorsements for Tim Michels stir GOP primary race for governor

Despite nearly a year of campaigning, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch's lead has evaporated

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson addresses the crowd
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich listens at left as former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson addresses the crowd before introducing Kasich, Monday, March 28, 2016, at a town hall meeting at the River Steel plant in West Salem, Wis. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

Former Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch spent years laying the foundation for her run for the governor’s office. On Friday, the state’s longest serving governor chose someone else for his endorsement.

Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s backing of Tim Michels may not swing the governor’s race — Kleefisch announced endorsements of her own Friday from more than 50 GOP lawmakers. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker endorsed her months ago.

But Thompson’s endorsement was the latest in a series of positive signs for Michels and of warning signs for Kleefisch.

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Nearly a year after formally launching her campaign, the former lieutenant governor’s status as front-runner has evaporated, leaving her and construction executive Michels in a competitive and increasingly negative head-to-head matchup.

Kleefisch was the first Republican to announce a bid to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers when she declared her candidacy in September. In addition to Walker and influential lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, she’s racked up endorsements from a host of influential conservative organizations like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, ABC Wisconsin and the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

The race changed dramatically when former President Donald Trump announced in June that he’s backing Michels. Trump’s endorsements in a series of primaries around the county have appeared to make an impact, and are likely to hold sway with his supporters in Wisconsin.

As recently as April, polling by the Marquette University Law School found 32 percent of Republican voters surveyed said they would support Kleefisch in the primary race. That put her more 20 points ahead of former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson and 26 points ahead of state Rep. Tim Ramthun, R-Campbellsport.

When the Marquette Law poll surveyed voters again in June, Kleefisch’s lead was gone. Among Republican voters planning to vote in the Aug. 9 primary, 27 percent said they’d support Michels and 26 percent said they’d support Kleefisch, according to the survey.

Thompson said his and Trump’s endorsement of Michels shows the Michels Corp. executive has a broad base of support among Wisconsin conservatives.

“I think it would serve him very well to have that kind of a broad base going into the governorship,” said Thompson.

Thompson said he will support whoever the Republican primary winner is “1 million percent.” And, he said, the recent June polling from Marquette showing 56 percent of respondents felt Wisconsin is on the wrong track means the primary victor will have a “fantastic shot at being governor.” Despite those wrong track numbers, Evers led each of the Republican candidates in the Marquette poll results from June.

While the endorsements of two of the biggest names in state GOP politics will likely help Michels’ bid, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Athony Chergosky said they present a bit of a paradox.

“What’s striking about this (Thompson) endorsement is just how radically different Donald Trump and Tommy Thompson are — the areas that they come from in politics and the styles of politics that they value,” said Chergosky.

He said while Thompson worked with Democratic state lawmakers during his four terms as governor, Trump is known for relentless attacks on Democrats and even fellow Republicans.

“So, it begs the question, what type of politician would Tim Michaels be if he is elected governor?” Chergosky asked. “It’s not clear at all to me what that answer would be.”

Chergosky said Thompson’s endorsement of Michels wasn’t a surprise, and doesn’t carry the same weight as the nod from Trump. But he said Thompson’s support might help the executive in conservative, suburban parts of Wisconsin, which shied away from Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

“That is Tommy Thompson country —those suburban areas, those areas of the state where there were doubts and concerns about Donald Trump,” said Chergosky.

As the Republican gubernatorial primary has tightened, Kleefisch and Michels have begun lobbing more direct attacks at one another.

The former lieutenant governor has accused Michels and his family’s business of supporting increases to Wisconsin’s gas tax. The same day of Thompson’s endorsement, the Kleefisch campaign accused Michels of giving his employees a day off to protest “right-to-work” legislation, which banned mandatory union due collections at private employers.

Michels’ campaign has fired back, accusing Kleefisch of going negative out of desperation.

“I expect that the candidates are going to go after one another more directly and with greater intensity, giving voters a real sense of the stakes going into this August primary,” said Chergosky.

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