A week has now passed 2022 Midterm elections and the ‘RED WAVE’ all the pundits predicted never materialized nationally, but we made some progress in Wisconsin. It fact, it was one of the worst midterm performances ever by the party out of power.
The good news is Ron Johnson defied the odds and was reelected to his third term; the GOP expanded their majorities in both houses of the Legislature including a supermajority in the Senate; the GOP captured the 3rd CD for the first time in a generation, and won the Treasurer’s office.
The ‘Red Wave’ that did not materialize did its damage also. Tim Michels lost, and Eric Toney lost, and there is no sugarcoating that. It’s deeply disappointing to squander what appeared to be the perfect political storm for big GOP gains across the board.
Since election night, it has been interesting watching all the armchair quarterbacking on social media this week after the results came in. Especially regarding the race for Governor. The mythology spewed by some in the other primary camps would have made the ancient Greeks proud.
Everything from ‘Rebecca would have won, or would have won with a ‘Desantis margin,’ ‘I told you so,’ or Michels was a ‘weak’ candidate. ‘Candidate quality matters.’ Michels did not work as hard, the team always went home early, etc. This hyperbole, and frankly pettiness, cannot go unanswered.
So, why do I think Tim Michels lost? There is no one clear reason, it was many. I am not making excuses, just dissecting what I think the main issues were. Both Ron Johnson and Tony Evers were incumbents. They had no primary, both spent the most, and successfully defined their opponents before they could be defined themselves. That’s a winning formula. No incumbents lost in Wisconsin. Only one incumbent Governor lost nationally – Nevada.
Did the party unite after the primary? No! Kevin Nicholson was the only candidate who publicly endorsed Michels but waited until the final hours. Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Ramthun sat this one out, and so did a percentage of their supporters, particularly in Waukesha and Washington County.
This was always about defeating Tony Evers.
Sadly, too many Republicans took the primary personally and voted 3rd party, wrote in a candidate, or sat out altogether. It was significant, about 30k votes, but would not have changed the outcome.
The Michels numbers were basically in line with previous Republicans. Michels got more votes than Scott Walker did in 2010 and 2014, but 29,234 fewer than Walker did in 2018. Tony Evers got 31,102 MORE votes than he got in 2018. Democrats added to their total, and Republicans subtracted. It’s math.
The Money Factor
Tim Michels invested, roughly $20 Million. Something no Wisconsin candidate has ever done. Literally, every dollar was focused on beating Evers. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome Evers’ financial advantage. This was the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the nation. No matter how much Michels put in, or raised, Evers always had more.
Michels did say he would ‘self-fund,’ when he probably should have set a maximum. Unfortunately, the perception was out there that he would match Evers’ efforts. He should have taken contributions throughout the primary, except from PACs and lobbyists. That talking point was very effective in the primary.
The guy invested significantly more than any candidate in history, and it wasn’t nearly enough. That’s scary.
Other candidates would have surely struggled to keep up. Anecdotally, not nearly enough money was invested in areas like Dane County, and it cost us dearly. Too many resources had to be invested in areas like Waukesha in an effort to shore up support that should have already been there.
Had Kleefisch publicly endorsed Michels early on and agreed to send a mailing to her supporters, Michels could have focused on other areas rather than bringing home the base. Not the main reason for the loss, but it sure would have helped.
In the end, money was a major factor and insurmountable for anyone.
Sure, Tim Michels was a little sluggish at first, but in the end, he evolved into an excellent candidate. He did an amazing job of connecting with voters all over the state. This did not go unnoticed, even several staunch Rebecca supporters commented to me about how impressed they had become with Michels over the course of the campaign.
On top of that, he and his team worked their butts off traveling across the state EVERY DAY! They were literally everywhere and had put together a substantial ground game in a short time. It was non-stop!
I am not going to say everything in the campaign was perfect, there were missteps. Sadly, the Democrats were able to control the narrative on issues like abortion and the largely unanswered harassment claims against Michels Corporation. Yes, they were answered on the trail, but they needed to be addressed more aggressively. But that’s hindsight.
Let’s put that myth to rest, Tim was a SOLID candidate who put everything he had into the race, so did his team. To him, this was a call to duty to save our state, and he answered the call.
I have zero regrets about supporting him!
The elephant in the Room, Rebecca Kleefisch Would Have Won?
The notion of Kleefisch winning the general: it’s like saying the Packers would have won the Super Bowl last year if they had beaten San Francisco. Saying Rebecca Kleefisch would have won has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Let’s ignore money for a moment. Kleefisch would have faced the same party division that Michels had. Only this time the anti-establishment wing would have never supported her, the same folks who stayed home in 2018.
Remember, she was polling at an anemic 32% and almost 50% undecided, after having campaigned for nearly three years. Republicans were NOT enthusiastic about her candidacy. She was unable to win the state party endorsement despite spending nearly $1 million identifying and targeting delegates and getting them to the convention. Folks can blame Kevin Nicholson all they want, but if Becky was the strongest candidate, she would have easily won the party endorsement, just as Leah Vukmir did in 2018.
Becky had all the advantages of incumbency; high name ID; she’s been on a statewide ballot five times with a record of 4-1; she had all the Madison insiders supporting her including the powerful WMC; she had the Walker machine behind her; she raised more than $8 million; she had most the Republican Party Executive Committee and a majority of County Chairs supporting her, yet she still lost by 5 points to a campaign that had fewer than a dozen staff and no real ground game. Why is that? Because most Republicans wanted an outsider. Becky was an insider.
So, how can you say she would have won the general when she couldn’t even win the primary with all that going for her? Of course, general elections are different dynamic, but you have to win the primary to get to the general.
Yes, my friends, Rebecca Kleefisch would have also lost, and possibly by a larger margin since money would have been a more significant issue for her.
The Tony Evers Machine Was Hard to Beat
I have been saying for over a year that Tony Evers was going to be tough to beat. Even though we know the reality, he comes across as this Mister Rogers type of friendly guy who looks harmless. Issues like Covid shutdowns, Kenosha, and mask mandates were all over two years ago, an eternity in politics. His approval numbers never really fell below 49%. People didn’t dislike him as much as the Republicans expected.
He also avoided public appearances like the plague, thus not having anything on video that could harm him as Barnes did. And finally, let’s not forget, he’s the incumbent. Wisconsin really likes incumbents.
Abortion, the Albatross that Republicans Failed to Overcome Nationwide
Tim Michels, Ron Johnson, and literally EVERY Republican in the country completely misjudged the effect Roe v Wade was going to have on the electorate. This issue was one that Republicans failed to get the base out on.
Democrats were able to use the abortion issue to micro-target Gen Z voters on campuses across the state, and it worked. Young women were told a right their mothers and grandmothers had was no longer available to them. It motivated them to get out and vote. And pollsters and the GOP never picked up on the momentum.
It’s the Ballots Stupid
The biggest reason Republicans failed in Wisconsin is, quite frankly, our ground game sucks. There is no better way to put it. Every year we keep losing more and more ground to the Democrats. They have literally grown their base by tens of thousands every cycle.
Why? They are constantly pushing into Republican areas, expanding their base. And the data shows they have been successful. Where had the GOP expanded territory in the past four years? Add to this the relentless focus on getting ballots into the hands of voters, and then ensuring their return. Republicans are consistently failing at this. The Democrats focus on ballots, and Republicans focus on complaining about them focusing on ballots.
LOSERS MAKE EXCUSES, AND WINNERS MAKE CHANGES
There is NO time to celebrate the victories we achieved last Tuesday. As of right now, unless we make SIGNIFICANT party changes, WE WILL LOSE AGAIN IN APRIL.
The Republican party is the real loser from last Tuesday. Just look at Milwaukee County, Republicans barely got 29%, this includes Johnson, or 21% in Dane.
Many in Republican party leadership need to quit or be voted out. Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? Especially in Milwaukee and Dane Counties where nothing has changed in years. We’ve had the same people deploying the same tactics in Milwaukee and Dane County for years and the only thing we are building in those counties is losses up and down the ballot.
In a nutshell, there was no red wave, literally, NOTHING CHANGED.
We have a ton of work to do to save a Supreme Court Seat, or literally EVERYTHING CHANGES. Lying about a campaign to give yourself relevance is simply doing nothing to affect change.
Tim Michels and his campaign team were able to stay competitive against incredible headwinds and lost a close race in a weird cycle. Enough of this, there’s too much work to do.