When we asked former Gov. Scott Walker about Tim Michels’ pledge not to raise the gas tax, he echoed former President George H.W. Bush, saying, “Read my lips…”
We met former Gov. Scott Walker at the Chocolate Factory in Delafield a few days before the August 9, 2022, Republican primary. Over a banana milkshake, the former governor named names. And they are some big ones.
He wanted to connect the dots for primary voters: Who is really behind Tim Michels’ sudden candidacy? Where did it come from?
Walker believes a group of powerful Republican insiders, some lobbyists – he named John Gard, Bill McCoshen, and Reince Priebus, among others – were actively hunting for an alternative to former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the governor’s race for months, eventually paving the way for Tim Michels to blow the primary up into a multi-million dollar bloodbath just over three months out.
Michels jumped in at the last minute when others passed on the opportunity (businessman Eric Hovde, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, and McCoshen himself). Priebus’s name was also floated as a possible alternative. When asked about his comments, McCoshen accused Walker of “trafficking conspiracy theories.” Michels’ campaign also fired back, accusing Kleefisch “and her insider allies” of “running desperate, false, personal attacks” when asked about Walker’s remarks.
During a half-hour interview that stretched into 1.5 hours, Walker was very candid about many things and people; Tony Evers, he says, “perfected the basement strategy before Biden did” and is “not a compelling guy.” He thinks there might be a “reverse Trump effect,” in which the former president’s endorsement costs Michels votes. The bitter Republican primary is a “family fight,” and whichever Republican wins is in for a “helluva ride.”
Is Kleefisch “establishment” as some critics claim? “By no means is she establishment; my God, she’s never run for anything before lieutenant governor,” said Walker. The “establishment” may be “a bunch of lobbyists creating you…” Walker said, smiling, his voice trailing off. “Michels started running in 1998. She just won more. If he’d won, he would have been in longer.”
He points out that Michels’ brother, Pat, is the president/CEO of Michels’ Corp., not Tim. Asked who runs the company, Walker said, “his brothers do,” adding that Tim is “somewhere in between (U.S. Sen.) Ron Johnson and Mary Burke (the Trek Bicycle exec who once ran against Walker for governor). In the sense that Ron Johnson really ran his company, and Mary Burke got fired by her family. So, he’s not that. He’s kind of the, he’s the guy that has the most interest in politics, he’s the front guy. He’s the guy that they send to fundraisers, he sets up things, he talks to people. That’s why he was good in New York… His brothers are the guys who are making things work. Does that mean he doesn’t run it? No.”
In some ways, Michels and his brothers are “not unlike” former Sen. Herb Kohl and his brothers, Walker said. “Herb was the upfront guy that everyone liked and got along with, but (his brothers) Sidney and Allen were really running things.”
Walker believes Michels’ campaign “just came out with slogans…it’s literally a Herb Kohl campaign – ‘nobody’s senator but yours.’ That he will not take PAC money and is beholden to nobody. Well, you (Kohl) were beholden to the Democratic leadership.”
Walker denied that his legacy is at stake.
“Statistically, it’s probably tied,” Walker said of the Kleefisch-Michels battle.
“Tim’s a nice enough guy, but he loses big in a primary against (Scott) Fitzgerald, he comes and wins a primary largely because, like now, he spends a lot of money in ’04, but then gets clobbered by 11 points against (Russ) Feingold, so if people are just looking at numbers…”
However, Walker repeatedly claimed that fellow Republicans worked hard behind-the-scenes to find an alternative to his former lieutenant governor.
“It’s simple,” Walker said. “The lobbyists who wanted a gas tax increase were hunting for an alternative because they knew that I and Rebecca had fought against the gas tax.”
Priebus, an attorney, is the former Wisconsin Republican Party and Republican National Committee chairman who was Donald Trump’s former chief-of-staff. Walker believes that Priebus was among those looking for an alternative to Kleefisch and encouraging others to run. He also believes that Priebus was one of the two most influential people in getting Michels the Donald Trump endorsement. However, he doesn’t think Reince was among those wanting a gas tax increase.
Gard is a lobbyist for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local #139 that was behind the infamous “Scott Holes” campaign in the last election. Scott Holes trashed Walker over his handling of the transportation budget and his refusal to raise the gas tax to replenish it. The Scott Holes group spent almost $500,000 and may have cost Walker the 2018 election. Companies like Michels Corp. have made a lot of money throughout the years through transportation budget road contracts, although Michels has denied any involvement in Scott Holes.
We recently reported on the connections behind the Scott Holes union, a Michels’ campaign volunteer, and a group funding anti-Kleefisch ads.
This. Is. Perfect. https://t.co/anYjHgduOV
— Scott Holes (@ScottHolesWI) October 22, 2018
McCoshen is the former lobbyist for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association (WTBA), which aggressively lobbied for gas tax increases through the years and against other pieces of the Walker agenda. He publicly considered running against Kleefisch himself and has deep ties to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, once serving as his campaign manager and chief of staff.
Michels’ campaign fired back at Walker’s claims.
“Becky Kleefisch and her supporters assumed 2022 would be a coronation for her. When challenged, her lead evaporated, and she and her insider allies have been running desperate, false, personal attacks ever since,” Chris Walker, the advisor to the Michels’ campaign, responded. “Tim Michels has the momentum, the organization, and the resources to win on Tuesday and beat Governor Evers in November. We need more votes than they got when they lost to Evers four years ago. Tim is building that winning coalition, and the first step begins Tuesday.”
Michels was board president of WTBA years ago; a Michels Corporation employee is currently the first vice president of the organization. That’s the group that has been the target of millions of dollars in Kleefisch/Walker and third-party ads against Tim Michels.
Michels denies he ever advocated for raising the gas tax and says he won’t raise it now, although Michels and his company have long-standing ties to groups that aggressively sought to raise the gas tax for years – WTBA and others. These groups also pushed back against other key Walker reforms, such as prevailing wage and right-to-work. Michels has said he didn’t know what the groups were doing, even though he served as board president/board member for one for a time, and his company reps have served in leadership positions.
Michels claims in campaign materials to be a “successful businessman,” Walker said. “Well, then you should be responsible for what your business does. If you’re not responsible for it, then you’re not a successful businessman. No one I know who runs a business doesn’t take responsibility.”
Insisted Walker, “I’m not out here scorching earth, but if you want to run on your business record, you have to cover all of it.”
For anyone wanting a gas tax increase, Michels is a “double header winner” if he wins the primary, said Walker. “(Gov. Tony) Evers hasn’t backtracked on his support (for the gas tax). If he stays in, they’re in good shape. If they get a Republican who supports it, even better; the chances of getting it (a gas tax hike) through a Republican Legislature increase dramatically.”
“I find all of this highly unusual,” McCoshen countered. “Why is a former GOP Governor going negative in a primary and trafficking conspiracy theories that are not true? Scott lost to Tony Evers because he took his eye off the ball here in Wisconsin when he decided to run for President. He can blame others all he wants, but he knows that’s the real reason.” Priebus and Gard did not comment for this story, although we gave them a chance to do so.
Why does the gas tax matter so much? Because it’s a major source of revenue to the state’s Transportation Fund, allowing for millions of dollars in public works contracts. Michels Corp. alone has secured about $1.2 billion in state contracts.
“If you want a gas tax increase, it’s smart to find a Republican – one who’s viable and can write a big check,” Walker said of Michels’ candidacy.
Asked what kind of a governor Michels would be, and if he believes he’s truly conservative, Walker said Michels is a big question mark. “I just don’t know,” he said. Since Michels’ failed 2004 race against Russ Feingold, Walker said, “other than fundraisers, I’ve never seen him (Michels) involved in anything.” Michels did donate to GOP candidates, including Walker and Kleefisch. He is also still listed on the advisory board for Kleefisch’s former 1848 group, which worked on conservative issues.
When Donald Trump endorsed Michels, the former president noted, “Tim served on my infrastructure task force, and helped us plan and start building the Keystone XL Pipeline before Joe Biden launched his assault on American Energy production.” Michels has advanced conservative positions on the campaign trail.
Asked whether he believes Michels when he says he won’t raise the gas tax, Walker responded, “Strategically, you know, it’s smart on his (Michels’) part to try to take that off the table.” But Walker doesn’t think some “of these other folks” who wanted him to run would be “satisfied with that answer.” He said some people who wanted an alternative to Kleefisch “encouraged” Michels to get in but stopped short of saying he is arguing Michels is “controlled” by these people. “I can see why they wanted someone else. Rebecca won’t raise gas taxes and taxes, period, so why would they want to go down that path again?”
Walker believes prevailing wage reform opposition also fueled what he called the anti-Kleefisch “coalition,” and, possibly, the fact he killed the Hard Rock casino in Kenosha. To be clear, he believes this fairly large “coalition” is bigger than the people he specifically named and looser than the word implies, so don’t take every claim he makes and apply it to them; it includes unions angry at his Act 10 reforms and a myriad of other people and groups who stood to lose money if gas taxes weren’t raised. In fact, it’s possible that people had separately come to the conclusion that a Kleefisch alternative was needed but had different motives from each other and were not working in concert.
Walker adds: “…It’s indisputable that his (Michels) company was, you know, was clearly part of the coalition fighting prevailing wage and right to work. Of course, you notice their defenders’ reaction to that is never to say that’s wrong.”
Is Michels’ candidacy an effort to roll back his signature reforms? Is it Tommy era people vs. Walker reformists? “I don’t think it’s as big as that,” Walker said. “I think it’s as specific as the gas tax, more cash in the transportation budget, um, maybe if they got lucky, they’d pull back on prevailing wage.” He said the “broader coalition with the gas tax” includes unions and non-unions, noting, “Michels (Corp.) happens to be union.”
Walker is not the only GOP heavyweight raising questions about Michels and the gas tax; a group of major GOP donors and businesspeople, including Walker’s former campaign chairman Mike Grebe, recently wrote a letter that said: “Tim Michels has a detailed history of supporting questionable economic policies with his company.” They added that Tim Michels lacks Kleefisch’s “unwavering conviction” to conservative principles.
This is all the biggest open secret in politics – the allegation that Michels is not an organic candidate who just sprang up out of nowhere – but it’s an angle the legacy media have pretty much missed, especially the role of Priebus, whose desire for a Kleefisch alternative is widely known among GOP circles.
Some veteran Republicans who wanted another candidate have argued to us over the past months that they are motivated solely by principle and a concern that Kleefisch can’t seal the deal.
Kleefisch is a weak candidate against Evers, they believe. Some find her television-honed persona inauthentic, her ambition troublesome, and they worry that women don’t warm to her. They worry that revisiting the divisive Walker legacy isn’t the best play for Republicans who want to defeat Evers.
Others truly believe that Walker botched the transportation budget or didn’t go far enough on issues like school choice. Walker made a LOT of enemies during his time as governor; he’s triangulated by people who think he went too far and by those who don’t think he went far enough on the right.
The counter argument is that normally you might expect a party to clear the decks for the second-in-command of a popular (in the Republican Party) Republican governor who barely lost last time. Instead, you have this unusual fissure, with heavyweights lined up on both sides and Evers grinning like a cheshire cat as he hoards a huge warchest for November. The pro-Kleefisch camp argues that Michels is a flawed and unvetted candidate who spent too much time in Connecticut and New York the past decade and is stumbling when asked about issues.
When we asked McCoshen for his reaction to Walker’s claims, he essentially advanced the argument that people who wanted someone else were worried about Kleefisch’s failure to seal the deal, not driven by profits or money. At least, that’s the case for him, he says.
“First, let’s get all the facts on the table,” he said.
“My wife and I voted for Scott Walker four times. We even held a fundraiser for him at our home during the 2010 primary with Tommy as the special guest. Walker personally asked me to be in his original cabinet. I declined because our youngest son was very sick at the time. He knows all of that. I wish Scott and Becky hadn’t lost to Tony Evers in 2018 and I understand why he’s still upset about losing.”
Continued McCoshen: “I met with Rebecca, Scott Neitzel (Kleefisch campaign chair) and Chaz Nichols (Kleefisch campaign manager) at my office on March 4th. Becky was in the meeting for an hour and the others stayed another hour. We never discussed transportation, gas taxes or casinos. Not once. We discussed overall strategy and tactics. Ask any of them. I told them the field wasn’t set yet and that I thought either Tommy or Michels would get in the race. They seemed stunned and upset. Tommy and Tim both saw an opening. Frankly, I saw the same opening when I considered running. There was a large lane for someone else to enter the race. The buzz in political circles, on talk radio, and even in articles this week was that she ‘couldn’t close the deal.’ All you needed to do was get beyond the traditional party insiders to see it. There was polling that said the same thing.”
He added: “Becky asked for my support because, ‘I am one of the brightest political minds in Wisconsin.’ I told her I had to wait to see what Tommy was going to do.”
Of course, after Thompson bailed on running, Michels stepped forth. Thompson has endorsed him.
Walker notes that a Marquette University Law School poll a few weeks back showed Kleefisch was the strongest candidate against Evers and with independents. He told us he wouldn’t do anything different today when it comes to transportation funding. That poll showed only Kleefisch in the margin of error against Evers (4 points behind him) and Michels 7 points behind Evers. But it came out in late June, before a lot of the advertising barrage, and it included Kevin Nicholson, who has since dropped out.
“I don’t buy the argument that it was because Rebecca wasn’t a good candidate,” Walker said of the efforts to get another candidate. “She is all over the state, working hard; this woman works incredibly hard. There was this niche out there, and the key to it all, and why he was a better pick than recruiting Tommy (Thompson), is that Tim Michels was willing to put money in.” He put millions of dollars in, in fact, setting up a brutal ad war and forcing Kleefisch to spend down her large war chest, robbing her of precious dollars needed to defeat Evers.
Walker firmly believes that powerful anti-Kleefisch insiders were “clearly looking for someone (to run)” against her. Walker says he believes that some, but not all, of these insiders are “glad that Evers is open to a gas tax (increase),” but they realized the Republican Legislature won’t be open to anything Evers does.
“They realized the better bet was a Republican. Early on, they wanted Tommy (Thompson). Tommy, as much as I loved him on school choice and welfare reform, he was more than happy to index and raise taxes when it comes to the gas tax and transportation. So that was their known commodity,” Walker alleged.
When Tommy opted not to run, “Michels was the obvious choice for them, and that’s how he gets in,” said Walker, noting that Michels had said he wouldn’t run if Tommy did.
“I think they were recruiting not just him. They were out trying to get somebody in, and I think that whole group of folks who want a gas tax increase was making the case that somebody needed to get in. It wasn’t just like day one they wanted him. That’s why there was this push for Tommy and others. Some of those folks…were also some of the people chirping out there that ‘Rebecca is not right; she’s not sealing the deal’…it wasn’t about real reality.”
Walker’s reforms cost some people a lot of money. That’s especially true, he says, when it comes to the state’s roadbuilding budget or the Hard Rock casino project in Kenosha, now suddenly resurrected, just in time for the election.
Walker Connects Dots
So how did this all work?
“I can’t tell you, on this day, these guys sat down and said (to Michels), ‘You have to do this,’ but we heard all of the rumblings,” Walker said. “It feels like people are drafting him to get in the race.”
Walker said that he doesn’t know the “day-to-day” timeline (because why would people tell him?) but believes people were “encouraging (Michels) to get in” and “created the circumstances.”
John Gard, the former Republican Assembly Speaker turned Scott Holes union lobbyist, has kept a low public profile during the Michels campaign. Michels told talk show host Mark Belling that he hasn’t talked to Gard in years.
What role is Gard playing in trying to get a Kleefisch alternative? “I think it’s heavy…clearly heavily involved…John, even when he was in the Legislature, he was all for the gas tax…to his credit, he’s consistent,” Walker said. Over the years, Gard spoke publicly against other Walker-era reforms, like prevailing wage.
“John Gard is definitely with the union, the Operating Engineers. They were the ones upset with me because I wouldn’t raise the gas tax,” Walker said.
McCoshen, the former chief of staff and campaign manager for Gov. Tommy Thompson, now works as a partner for Michael Best Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm affiliated with Michael Best & Friedrich, a powerful law firm in Milwaukee.
The roadbuilding group that McCoshen used to lobby for, WTBA, was a part of the Wisconsin DRIVE Coalition, sponsoring its efforts. Tony Evers said at a DRIVE forum that he would be willing to hike gas taxes if elected governor. The DRIVE Coalition listed McCoshen as a press contact on its press releases.
The DRIVE Coalition bemoaned the condition of Wisconsin’s roads, saying that the gas tax was “becoming necessary” to fund Wisconsin roads. Many other prominent groups, from MMAC to the Farm Bureau, also supported DRIVE, including some supporting Kleefisch’s campaign. The group argued that good infrastructure boosts a strong economy.
When McCoshen ended his flirtation with running for governor against Kleefisch himself, he urged a “competitive primary” against her.
“McCoshen for years was one of a number of lobbyists the roadbuilders had… if McCoshen was on the primary ballot, I don’t see a push for Thompson or Michels,” said Walker. “Early on, it made sense Bill would be the (Kleefisch-alternative) candidate. He’s a really smart, sharp guy.”
When McCoshen decided not to run himself, some people who desired a Kleefisch alternative “start to panic,” Walker said of the anti-Kleefisch advocates.
“Someone else has got to be a viable alternative. You start to hear them shopping around, making the case. ‘Maybe Rebecca’s not up for this, maybe she can’t win, blah, blah, blah.’ I even heard that from (billionaire businesswoman) Diane (Hendricks): ‘She can’t win.’”
Walker said he asked, “Based on what? McCoshen had a poll he was shopping around to get that outcome. They were all making the push that she can’t win.” He said that that some people wanted an “alternative who would be more open to the gas tax.”
McCoshen categorically denies his motive for believing another candidate was needed against Kleefisch involves the gas tax, casino interests, or roadbuilders. He calls Walker’s comments “a slanderous gossip column a few days before a primary. What is Scott Walker’s proof of any of his claims?”
“If Becky wins on Tuesday, I will happily support her. If she doesn’t, I hope her, and her supporters will do the same for Tim Michels,” McCoshen told WRN.
Reince Priebus is a different matter. Priebus is now the president and chief strategist at Michael Best Strategies LLC. When it comes to Priebus, Walker doesn’t think he’s motivated by the gas tax; he thinks he was among those encouraging someone else to run, though, and he believes that Priebus and Diane Hendricks are the most powerful Wisconsin influences on Trump.
“I think initially he was interested in McCoshen (as the governor candidate), but McCoshen gets out.”
He added of the Michels candidacy, “I think Reince was encouraging.”
The Kenosha Casino
Michael Best seems to swirl in a lot of discussions lately.
Empower Wisconsin, a conservative site with ties to some Walker/Kleefisch supporters, recently reported on Michael Best’s ties to the revived Kenosha casino project. They obtained documents showing Michael Best’s involvement with Kenosha LandCo, LLC, which is linked to the Seminole tribe that wants to build the casino.
When the Hard Rock project was revived this summer, Wisconsin Right Now received a press release from Evan Zeppos, a Democratic-linked PR operative who works as “Principal & Senior Public Affairs Advisor” for Michael Best Strategies LLC. Zeppos announced that the Menominee Tribe was partnering “with Hard Rock to develop a Kenosha casino and destination entertainment center.”
To be clear, we are not alleging that the specific people named in this story, including Priebus, Gard, Hendricks, and McCoshen, are motivated by the casino profits and, to be sure, Michael Best is a big and respected firm. However, Walker mentioned the casino and Michael Best’s ties as possibly driving some anti-Kleefisch sentiment since people might infer she would be against it, as he was. “You can see those connections…It would make sense,” Walker said, but he acknowledged that was “speculative.”
The voters “spoke years ago about expansion of gambling. Unless you can tell me there’s going to be a net reduction, I saw that as expansion, and they presume that Rebecca is on a similar path,” he added.
The Trump Endorsement
Walker believes Wisconsin billionaire Hendricks and Priebus were most instrumental in Michels getting the Donald Trump endorsement. He did not accuse Hendricks or Priebus of being motivated by the gas tax or casino, however.
It didn’t hurt that Michels’ company wanted to build the wall and Keystone pipeline, Walker said.
“I love Diane, so this is not a dig. For whatever reason, she just doesn’t like Rebecca and wanted Tommy (Thompson) and then really pushed Michels after that,” he said. “She clearly has the president’s ear because she was very involved in his finances. And to a lesser extent, Reince.” He also noted that he “loves Reince.”
Walker was surprised Trump is still supporting Michels since Michels said in a recent debate that he would not make decertifying the election a priority (Kleefisch has also stopped short of embracing the decertification cause). “Well, that’s the whole argument (Trump) is making for punishing Robin Vos. How can you support somebody who is saying essentially the same thing?” he asked.
Walker pointed out that Ted Cruz “won the primary here” in 2016. Trump is holding a rally for Michels on Friday in Waukesha County.
We asked Walker if he’d ever considered holding a Scott Walker rally. “No rallies, though,” he laughed. He said Trump is “entertaining, it’s like going out to watch a show…It’s pretty interesting actually.”
Priebus also set up a meeting between Kleefisch and Trump.
Walker heard talk that Trump and others gave Kleefisch a nickname: 48.5% Becky, the percentage Walker/Kleefisch got against Evers in 2018. “If you’re going to use that, it should be 44% Michels,” Walker said, smiling, mentioning Michels’ margin against Russ Feingold in the 2004 Senate race.
“At least she’s four points higher. She can come back with 52%.” Kleefisch won the recall with 52.9% of the vote and was on the ballot separately.
Relaxed and smiling throughout the interview, the former gov was vintage Walker: A man who sees the world as a stream of constant political strategic analysis. He is a font of Wisconsin campaign trivia. He’s too affable and analytical to ever seem angry. To be clear, he didn’t seem angry at all here.
Walker, of course, is deeply involved in the Kleefisch effort. His son, Alex, is her top strategist. He cut ads for Kleefisch accusing Michels of “teaming up with the union bosses and those lobbying for a gas tax increase.” Michels’ campaign has accused the Kleefisch campaign ads of falsely stating that he wanted personally to raise the gas tax. You can read our story that documents the facts on that controversy here.
Wisconsin Public Radio reported that Michels Corporation “was a member of the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, a group that organized in 2014 to fight the (right-to-work) proposal,” although candidate Michels, who co-owns Michels Corp., says he supports right to work, another Walker-era reform.
Critics say Walker “waited too long” to back such reforms, he acknowledged. He called it a “classic Saul Alinsky” strategy, to “deflect.”
“Well, I signed the bill,” he counters. He said he did not sign those reforms right away because he wanted to focus on Act 10 first, not cause more disruption.
It all dates back, Walker believes, to the Walker/Kleefisch administration’s refusal in 2017, with the election looming, to raise the gas tax to replenish the state’s transportation fund, which is used to pay for road contracts secured by companies like Michels Corp. At the time, this caused a big skirmish, including with some Republicans in the Legislature who didn’t want to replace it with borrowing.
The depleted transportation fund also enraged unions, and one – the union Gard lobbies for – publicly launched Scott Holes.
Walker said that initially the roadbuilders were fine with him because he fulfilled a promise to “backfill the transportation fund” after former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle “raided” it. But then “they wanted more, so they wanted a gas tax increase. They weren’t shy about it.” When they realized he would never budge on not raising taxes, some of those opponents then focused on Scott Holes, he said.
Here are other excerpts from our interview with Walker:
Walker on the news media
“Well, they’re just lazy. I think laziness is worse than bias…You can have some people think they’re being reporters, but they just follow. And Twitter’s made for lazy people.”
On the ugly GOP primary
“It’s like a family fight.”
On whether he will ever run for office again
Walker is currently president of the Young Americas Foundation, which focuses on conservative youth.
“I told YAF I’d give them at least until 2025. I’ve seen too many groups in Washington, where someone parks themselves for a year or two to essentially be their gravy train. Even though it was just two terms, I’ve been in front of the voters four times statewide. They deserve a break.”
On the Walker/Kleefisch loss to Evers
“The data is different now; four years ago, the nationwide party line ballot was 10.5 points to the Democrat direction. It’s almost exactly the reverse now. We lost by 1.1 so we really were 9.4 points ahead of the national curve. It doesn’t matter. It was a blue wave nationwide, add here the marijuana referendums, which were brilliant on their (Democrats’) part strategically. No one saw that coming. Students were the driving force.”
On Tony Evers’ “basement strategy”
“Tony Evers perfected the basement strategy before Biden did. He intentionally is quiet. He draws little or no attention to himself, he hardly goes anywhere, he draws little or no controversy and then you have most of the media totally complicit with it. They don’t challenge him on anything. You have all these problems in the Department of Safety and Professional Services, arguably things are worse than they ever were in juvenile corrections, but, oh, that’s not his fault. I get the strategy. He’s not a compelling guy. If you look at his record, he’s not up for the job, so don’t make him front and center and stockpile money.”
On the general election
He said the Democratic Governor’s Association will put in $21 million, and Evers has raised $20 million, so, “Either Tim or Rebecca – both of them – are in for a helluva ride.”
What’s the winning message to defeat Evers?
“I think she’s (Kleefisch’s) on the right three; she’s just got to hammer them firmer. It’s schools, safety, jobs/economy. Every ad has to hone in on all three or each of those things.”
Is the contested primary bad?
“The problem with a contested primary is they are really spending very little time attacking Evers. Any of us who has ever been in a primary always thinks it’s bad. The flip side is it forces you to do things to test out your volunteer base, your messaging…In Rebecca’s case, it probably is more so than a traditional primary bad for her” because she was already “a statewide known commodity” who had gone through a recall.
People forget that “the recall, that was her alone, she was on the ballot herself. A few weeks out, we started to flip out a bit thinking, ‘Do people know she’s on the ballot?'”
On whether Kleefisch is “establishment”?
“…By no means is she establishment, my God, she’s never run for anything before lieutenant governor. It’s always laughable, the establishment – what? If anything in this case, Michels started running in 1998. She just won more. If he’d won, he would have been in longer.”
On Kleefisch winning the lieutenant governor’s primary the first time
“She won on her own against a Capitol insider, a guy I liked, Brett Davis. I liked all three of them running. I said in the primary I would put any of those three in the cabinet (Dave Ross was the third), which I did. She won a pretty legitimate primary. Brett Davis was well-liked and well-funded. She wasn’t nasty about it. She just grabbed people’s attention.”
Kleefisch won with 46% of the vote.
On the effect of a Trump endorsement
Michels received the Trump endorsement. Walker believes there is a “reverse Trump effect,” however.
“I don’t think that every Trump voter necessarily goes to Michels, but I think people who are independents or even some leaning Republican voters who don’t like Trump will not go to Michels, so it’s not all one way, but it probably is the other.”
He said Trump has had a problem with “suburban people, college-educated suburban voters, period. Women got the most attention, but if you look at the data, they are college-educated suburban white voters – woke influenced suburban voters who felt a sense of guilt.”
If Kleefisch had gotten Trump’s endorsement, “it would have made the primary a slam dunk. Now it’s not impossible, but it’s tougher.” He said the “best bet would have been no endorsement.” The upside of not getting the endorsement is that getting it would mean “in the general, you’re pegged.” He said that Trump has “been as good as you can get. Trump endorsed Michels, but he hasn’t said anything else.” Of course, Trump is holding a rally with Michels on Friday.
“Trump has earned a right to have an impact” because of the “stuff he accomplished” that people only dreamed could happen, said Walker. But he said that in some recent governor’s races, the former president’s candidates haven’t won.
On Tim Michels’ involvement in groups that aggressively lobbied to raise the gas tax
Walker addressed the groups that Michels and his company were involved in over the years.
“No matter what he says and doesn’t say, his company did these things; you can say it’s part of a larger group. One of them (the groups) was solely for the purpose of doing these things. So, you can’t say, ‘I didn’t know.’ It’s not like being part of the WMC (Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce) and there’s one thing out of 100 you disagree with. If that group’s sole purpose is to push this agenda, and you’re a member of it…”
Michels has said he didn’t know what the groups were lobbying against.
On Michels sending his kids to private high schools in Connecticut and New York
Walker thinks Democrats will use this issue against Michels to blunt his effectiveness on the education issue.
“I would put money on the table, if I was a betting man, that one of the ads the day after the primary won’t just be about his house (in Connecticut), but about his kids going to private schools in Connecticut (and New York). I’m not attacking him for it, it’s his choice, he was doing things, I get it, family is where your family is at.”
However, he believes the Democrats will use that to “knock him right off the block.” He believes they will argue “how do you have a right to talk about this (education); you’re not invested here, your kids went to school somewhere else.”
He says Kleefisch, as the mother of daughters who attended Wisconsin schools, is better positioned to make the case on public education, similar to the way a Republican, Glenn Youngkin, flipped the governor’s mansion in Virginia. Walker said that “for the first time in my adult life,” Republicans have an edge on the education issue with voters.
“They (Democrats) will do the house, the image of the $17 million home in Connecticut, combined with the kids…they went to school out-of-state and wipe out the education part.”
On Wisconsin Conservative Digest’s Bob Dohnal, who has pushed Michels aggressively
“I know Bob. Bob actually did a fundraiser when I first ran, so it cracks me up that he’s all worked up.”
Is Michels up for the job?
“I don’t know him well enough to know that. I just know Evers is not. He could be, and obviously if he’s the nominee, he’s infinitely better than Evers is.”
The Attorney General’s race
Walker has not endorsed in the primary among Eric Toney, Adam Jarchow and Karen Mueller.
Asked who he thinks will win, he said, “I honestly don’t know.” He originally thought Ryan Owens would win before he surprised Walker by dropping out, saying Owens “was a vacuum of money.”
He believes Jarchow should have argued that Toney’s dismissed COVID prosecutions are an issue because “how can you take it off the table as an issue to use against the AG, although I give Eric credit. I think he’s actually gotten pretty good at responding to that. It’s a good example of a primary helping you out.”
He acknowledged that the fact Jarchow has never prosecuted a criminal case is a problem for him. “That’s the flip.” He said he remembers standing outside the courthouse in Milwaukee with then Republican AG candidate JB Van Hollen when he was running against former Democratic County Executive Kathleen Falk, who had never prosecuted a case, and “saying how can you elect her as the state’s top cop when she’s never been in court?”
On the lieutenant governor’s race
“It’s kind of a crap shoot. I have no idea. (Pat Testin) worked hard, Will Martin is an interesting character, Roger (Roth) started out with a bunch of money. If you look at any of these primaries, there’s no RINO.”
On the ABC group that Kleefisch created job training videos for
Anti-Kleefisch direct mail has criticized her for working for a group that employed lobbyists after she was lieutenant governor. We asked Walker if this group was conservative.
“Not only did they support me… these are the people who build things, but they’re not stuck with the unions. These are the ones who don’t like prevailing wage and want a level playing field.”
He also said Kleefisch helped a lot of local school board candidates win elections.
On Michels using bullet points
“It’s just bullet points,” he said of Michels’ campaign. Walker said John Kerry is a veteran and Herb Kohl was a businessman, both points Michels raises constantly, but he didn’t want them in office. He said those things don’t necessarily mean you’re conservative.
He said, in contrast, Kleefisch would be ready to lead on day one. Who should voters pick? “Hand’s down, Rebecca. This woman’s tested…She never missed a day of the fight. She was in the thick of it.”
On starting for the Packers
“I may want to do it, but I’m not capable.”
On what Kleefisch did on her own during his administration
“Jobs without a doubt. Especially going out and recruiting businesses to come to the state, in particular in Illinois.” He said she worked hard with small businesses. “Hands on.” She co-chaired a commission doing minority outreach. She wanted to focus on changing the tax code if they had a third term, Walker said.
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