Tim Michels lost the governor’s race by a margin larger than all observers expected.
Next week, we move forward. The state Supreme Court is looming, and it needs the full attention of conservatives. It will have ours.
However, it’s imperative that we dissect what went wrong in the governor’s race so Republicans don’t make the same mistakes again.
To be blunt: Republicans were lied to. They were seduced by the idea of a self-funding candidate who didn’t deliver. He dragged down other statewide candidates as a result.
A small group of Republican insiders parachuted Michels into the gubernatorial primary at the last minute to blow up the two good conservatives already in the race, turning it into a money-draining bloodbath.
The people searching for a Rebecca Kleefisch alternative and pushing Michels early on included former RNC chair/attorney/Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, lobbyist Bill McCoshen, lobbyist John Gard, billionaire Diane Hendricks, and former Gov. Tommy Thompson. They had sought other alternatives (Eric Hovde, McCoshen and Tommy) that didn’t work out before settling on Michels. They were concerned Kleefisch couldn’t win, but it’s not a gamble that makes sense now: She certainly wouldn’t have done worse.
It was, in some ways, the Thompson era vs. the Walker era. Former President Donald Trump went all in for Michels.
Talk show host Jay Weber and Bob Dohnal’s Wisconsin Conservative Digest pushed Michels’ candidacy hard to conservative audiences. Education consultant George Mitchell was a supporter on the periphery. Brian Fraley helped run the PR.
Before the primary election, we tried to warn people that Michels was a weak candidate. He had lost two prior races, was absent from Wisconsin politics for 18 years, hadn’t even lived full-time in the state for years, and lost to Russ Feingold by 11 percent.
We wrote before the August primary: “We are concerned that Michels’ flatfooted and defensive campaign would bungle the deluge of attacks the left and media will throw at the Republican nominee beginning Aug. 10. They couldn’t even handle a few tough questions from a conservative news site run by two people in their basements.”
We were personally attacked by Michels’ supporters for that, but we ended up right. All of the problems that emerged in the general election were apparent in the primary, and we wanted a candidate who could beat Gov. Tony Evers. Instead, Evers became the first Wisconsin governor in more than three decades to “win reelection in a midterm while a president from his party held office.” Michels lost 51.2% to 47.8%.
The election was winnable. Two statewide Republican candidates did win (Johnson and John Leiber). Turnout in Milwaukee County was down. Evers is a lackluster candidate who mismanaged numerous issues.
Once Michels won the primary, we turned our focus solely to Evers. We handed Michels the biggest sword in the general election with a 70-plus series on Evers’ appointee’s paroles of killers and rapists.
We endorsed Michels because he was unquestioningly better on policy than Evers. We can’t find any other news outlet that endorsed him.
However, here’s why he lost:
1. Michels was outspent
Michels’ central promise in the primary was essentially this: Elect me because I can self-fund and won’t get outspent by Evers.
That did not happen. Frankly, Michels’ modus operandi in the Senate race against Feingold was the same, which we warned voters about before the primary.
Campaign finance reports show that Michels contributed only just over $6.7 million (and they were almost all loans) during the general election against Evers, according to the campaign finance reports filed and amended through Nov. 8, 2022.
In comparison, Michels contributed nearly $12 million in the primary, which began in late April.
That means Michels spent almost more than twice as much money to defeat a conservative as he did to defeat Evers.
He went dark in key areas for weeks after the primary. Some speculated it was a game of chicken with big donors.
2. He was uninformed on the issues
Michels was shockingly uninformed on the issues. Everyone saw this, but no one wanted to say it.
Now we can say it. He simply did not grasp the nuances of serious issues one would expect a gubernatorial candidate to know. This hurt him in the general election because it led to a series of unforced errors in interviews with liberal media reporters.
We needed a candidate competent to aggressively litigate Evers’ failures to his face.
During the single debate, Michels’ performance was weak, and it was not a good idea to call Wisconsinites lazy.
This problem started early on in the primary and never improved. We realized Michels was uninformed on the issues when, shortly after he entered the race, we asked him what he thought about the high-profile, recent actions of Sheriff Schmaling against WEC. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights and then punched his fist in the air and stated, “Ban Zuckerbucks!” It was obvious that he didn’t know what we were talking about.
During the primary, he skipped a debate on the Regular Joe show in the Fox Valley.
Wisconsin Right Now was set to moderate a debate; Michels objected. He was allowed to give a stump speech instead.
He flip-flopped publicly on the Wisconsin Election Commission. He initially said he wasn’t sure he wanted to abolish the WEC, then said he wanted to “dramatically reform” it, and then switched to supporting it being abolished.
He clearly didn’t know what “DACA” was in a primary debate. He mixed up paroles and pardons. He walked back a comment on a flat tax. And so it went.
Michels’ response to many questions was something to the effect of “We’ll sit down and figure it out once we get all the details.”
3. Incoherence on abortion
Abortion was a big problem for all Republican candidates and the overturning of Roe v. Wade could not have come at a worse time.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson handled this thorny issue the best, and he won. Johnson suggested the question go to referendum to let the people decide. That neutralized the issue. It was brilliant.
Michels said in May that he was for “modernizing” the 1849 abortion law. By June, he was saying his position on abortion was “an exact mirror” of that law. He said much later that he would sign a law that contained exceptions after saying he didn’t support them. By then the damage was done.
The abortion issue may have fueled younger voters to choose Evers and fueled campus voting. Republicans need a better way of addressing it.
He didn’t do well with the culture wars either. Injecting gay marriage into the race was not necessary. Sometimes it felt like he was stuck in 2004. Society settled that issue long ago.
4. Trump’s endorsement cost him
Michels lost votes in the WOW counties when compared to Scott Walker in 2018. Why?
President Donald Trump’s endorsement hurt him. Trump probably helped Michels get out of the primary, but the endorsement was an albatross in the general.
The liberal media and Democrats ran that photo of Michels screaming on stage next to Trump repeatedly. The former president’s graceless and unfair bashing of the Kleefisches upset some conservatives.
If Trump really wanted to help Michels win, he should have stayed away in the primary. We voted for Trump five times between us; we have admired the former president’s policy positions and think he is often treated very poorly by the left and media. But conservatives need to face this practical reality: With independents and even some conservative women, Trump’s endorsement hurts.
5. Michels had a weak campaign structure
The weaknesses in Michels’ campaign structure was obvious. They were slow to respond on parole and angry and insulting at other times.
Others had similar stories. They said Michels wasn’t spending enough to expand his staff and that Michels’ staffers were wearing multiple hats. According to talk show host Dan O’Donnell, Michels had so few volunteers that they hired people from temp agencies.
Some of his staff were from out of state and weren’t familiar with Wisconsin politics and media. They were even slow to reach out to some talk radio hosts who had supported Kleefisch in the primary.
6. Michels neglected the base
During the general election, we started hearing story after story of Michels neglecting the Republican base.
He focused on expanding the tent to reach the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” One county party official told us Michels refused to answer questions, and left a GOP dinner early to head for a “Democrat bar.”
Rather than mend bruised feelings from the primary, he caused more.
Multiple people affiliated with county parties told us they were being charged for campaign signs. One said they never saw him. Another said a group of regular folks paid $500 each to sit with Michels at their table, and he didn’t show up.
We heard he wanted to keep banker’s hours, while other candidates pounded the pavement well into the night.
In retrospect, it was a canary in the mine when he vanished the weekend after the primary and then skipped the Dane County Lincoln Day event.
Michels even upset some of the conservative “education moms.”
We heard too many stories like this. It added up.
7. Michels did not reach out to women
The polls showed a massive gender gap.
Michels needed to woo back suburban women Trump lost. This was a tall order.
If you think about it, his imagery was very male: construction sites, red trucks, stubble, and tan work shirts. People needed to see more of Barbara in ads.
Michels needed to humanize himself to women, and he did not.
8. Michels did not have a strong media counterattack
We heard over and over again that people were seeing the dishonest campaign ad (which derived from a dishonest news article) about Michels’ company having a few sexual harassment cases over the years.
Michels didn’t do enough to get his side out and we think this ad was very damaging and unfair.
Similarly, Michels did not do enough to push back against the false Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that erroneously reported his company had no blacks in management.
9. We gave him a big sword on parole, but he stumbled and dropped it
We handed Michels the biggest sword of the campaign: Paroles. 94% of the electorate said crime was an important factor when they voted.
But Michels stumbled.
He waited two weeks to seize on the issue and then confused paroles with pardons. The media pounced.
They turned parole into a numbers and process story, and he didn’t show how they were twisting the truth. He should have zeroed in on the killers and victims and used his prominence to force the media to cover them. A few tweets aren’t going to do it.
He should have sat down with a victim’s family at their kitchen table, invited the media (with their permission of course) and said, “Tony Evers’ administration didn’t give you a voice. I am here because I will.”
He should have traveled to Onalaska, stood with the neighbor of killer/rapist Terrance Shaw, who was placed by Evers’ DOC into a home functioning as a daycare, and demanded to know how Evers let this happen.
Evers knew he had a HUGE problem on paroles, especially relating to victims. Michels needed to seize the narrative, but he never effectively did so.
10. He failed to have a coherent economic platform
As James Carville once famously said, “It’s the economy stupid.”
It’s still the economy stupid (voters named it their most important issue), but it’s unclear what Michels’ economic plan even was.
He bungled the flat tax question. He didn’t talk about job creation much even though his family company is a big job creator. He needed something simple that promised voters a benefit: Perhaps eliminating the income tax.
He needed a second punch in addition to the crime issue, and it should have been on the economy.
11. He didn’t have much charisma on the stump
Some candidates are forces of personality. Ronald Reagan, Tommy Thompson and Donald Trump. These big personalities dominate a room.
If you met Michels in person, you could quickly see he wasn’t one of them. Most people are not. However, he also entered the race so late that he never had a chance to fully grow on the stump.
He resorted to repeating the same cliched talking points, as if reading them off note cards: the bad guys were going to be worried, a new sheriff was in town, Covid to Kenosha. But when asked questions on the fly, he was not very effective.
A reader who knows Michels told us he is a gracious, kind and warm person. We have no reason to doubt this. But some people just aren’t able to translate their authentic selves into politics. He was one of them.
Michels tried to adopt Trump-like messaging (outside, businessman, etc.) But no one can be Trump.
12. There was an independent candidate on the ballot
Independent Joan Beglinger ended up getting significantly less than the amount Michels lost by, so she didn’t cost him the race (she got 26,987 votes). But it didn’t help that she was still on the ballot, even after dropping out and endorsing Michels.
However, the way the campaign handled Beglinger was an example of its ineptness. She reached out to the campaign in September and offered to help get the word out, but they wanted to keep her under wraps. Then Democrats tried to exploit it all with an insidious Rino Hunters scam to try to make people think she didn’t drop out.
13. The brutal primary
It’s not clear how many Republicans actually didn’t vote for Michels, but the brutal primary did make it harder for conservatives to unite around him. You saw this in some polls, where he received a few points less from Republicans than Ron Johnson did.
We don’t think the election was close enough that “angry Kleefisch voters” determined it. But it might have played a subtle role.
Hysterically, some of Michels’ attack dogs blame Kleefisch or her supporters for this. In truth Michels has no one to blame for this but himself. He jumped into the primary late and then he and his supporters went after the proven conservative who was the second-in-command to our last Republican governor. The tone starts at the top.
Michels and his supporters made the primary extremely vicious, even going after Kleefisch’s husband and calling her a Communist China sympathizer. It wasn’t just a hard-fought battle on the issues (like the gas tax). It was a campaign built on lies against a fellow conservative. It’s hard to walk stuff like that back.