Kleefisch, Michels, Ramthun debate
From left, Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun participate in a televised Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate Sunday, July 24, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Kleefisch, Michels, and Ramthun provide supportive words but are more vague about what would actually happen in Wisconsin if any of them were to defeat Tony Evers and take power.

The three Republican candidates competing for the chance to run for governor this fall debated Sunday evening and showed a willingness to continue spreading misinformation about elections, pregnancy counseling, immigrants, and their level of support for paid family leave. Each trained most of their criticisms on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers rather than one another.

Construction company owner Tim Michels, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun met at Marquette University to position themselves to GOP voters ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.

Big Lie and ‘Decertification’

All three engaged in some form of spreading former President Donald Trump’s lie that there was something suspicious about the 2020 presidential election. 

Ramthun—whose campaign is based on the Big Lie and an illegal scheme to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 electoral votes—was the only one to say definitively that decertification would be a top priority if he became governor. 

Kleefisch—who less than a year ago answered a direct question and said Biden had won the race before later flip-flopping—used the word “rigged” when asked about 2020, but said she would not try to decertify the election.

Michels—whose plan for elections would abolish the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, leave elections without any oversight for a time, and actually update voter rolls less frequently than is done currently—said of decertification, “It’s not a priority.”

The answers were reminiscent of 2014 when then-Gov. Scott Walker, while running for a second term, said any talk about union-busting “right to work” legislation was a “distraction,” but he immediately signed a fast-tracked bill by the Legislature once he had been reelected.

Abortion and ‘Counseling’

Asked about the state’s current abortion ban—written in 1849 and put back in effect after the US Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade—Kleefisch reaffirmed that she does not support adding exceptions for victims of rape and incest.

Ramthun and Michels said they would support counseling services for pregnant women. Republicans have widely embraced so-called “pregnancy resource centers” which frequently spread misinformation about abortion and miscarriage in pregnancy as a way to coerce women into not pursuing abortion care. Physicians frequently stress the need for patients to have comprehensive care and receive factual information about the full range of options, especially in populations with high maternal mortality and fetal mortality rates and those with high-risk pregnancies

Immigration Confusion

Michels appeared confused or uninformed on the subject of support for the children of undocumented immigrants—children who were brought into the country without proper paperwork but who have done well in school and seek to become part of the general workforce without fear of deportation. They are often referred to as “DREAMers” for a 2001 proposal—the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—which was later amended and called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act.

Michels has run a TV ad promising “no benefits, no driver’s license, no tuition” to undocumented immigrants—closing with the line, “There’s nothing racist about enforcing our laws.”

Asked if DACA students who graduate from Wisconsin high schools would be eligible for the kinds of incentives he said were necessary to attract more skilled laborers, Michels punted.

“DACA? DACA students?” Michels responded. “I want to look at the details on everything before I agree to anything.”

Paid Family Leave Mirage

The candidates were asked about the prospect of state-supported paid family leave for employees with new children or other family situations that require concentrated time away from work. They suggested a bond with Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem who was quoted in media reports as being in favor of the idea—even though she never directly stated she would support such legislation, only that the concept is “a debate that we’ll continue to have.” 

Kleefisch was equally evasive, saying it was “something I would look at.” She said it was important for parents to have time to “bond with their babies,” but also that “we need to make sure that more people are going back to work.”

Ramthun also talked about the importance of bonding, and Michels noted his company provides paid leave.

Republicans have repeatedly opposed or failed to sign onto Democratic bills to create paid family leave programs at the state and federal levels.