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Michels, Barnes & more: 2022 Wisconsin primary election debrief

voter casting a ballot
Maayan Silver
/
WUWM
Wisconsin voter cast their ballot at Charles Allis Art Museum during Aug. 9 primary election.

Primary results are in, and Wisconsinites are one step closer to determining who they will be electing in the 2022 midterms. WUWM's Maayan Silver breaks down Tuesday’s partisan primary election and looks ahead to the midterms.

Top three things you need to know from this primary election.


  1. It was a mixed bag for Trump-endorsed candidates. In a pretty-big upset, Trump-backed construction businessman Tim Michels beat out establishment Republican and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the GOP primary for governor. But GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was able to edge out his Trump-endorsed challenger Adam Steen.
  2. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes coasted to victory in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary.
  3. Milwaukee has a new sheriff-elect.

Wisconsin governor’s race — Tim Michels won. How did that happen and what does it mean?

While the race between Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels had been neck-and-neck for weeks, Michels was able to declare victory. He jumped into the race pretty late, in April, and poured millions of his own money into the campaign. Michels came out on top despite some pretty relentless Kleefisch attack ads throughout the summer.

Michels portrays himself as a government outsider, and just how Trump said he’d “drain the swamp,” Michels promises that he’d “turn Madison upside down.” That’s even though Michels has been politically-minded for awhile, having lost races for both state Senate and U.S. Senate. It's now Michels vs. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

What about the Vos-Steen Assembly race?

Adam Steen is a far-right Republican who campaigned on a platform of overturning the 2020 election results and banning birth control, beyond Plan B. ABC27 in Madison reported that they asked Steen: "Birth control ahead of time? Outlawed?" And Steen answered, "Right, because you're simply trying to avoid a consequence.”

Trump endorsed Steen as part of his warpath against Assembly Speaker Vos, calling Vos a RINO (Republican in Name Only) because Vos didn’t agree that Trump won Wisconsin in 2020 —and allegedly hasn’t done enough to overturn the results. That’s even though Vos hired a former conservative state supreme court justice to investigate the election. Vos was able to beat back the challenge.

What do these two races say about the current state of Wisconsin politics?

Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was aligned with the Walker era in Wisconsin politics. In some ways, that race was looked at as a test of the Republican electorate in Wisconsin in 2022 — whether it is more in line with Trump’s more rural coalition or whether there’s still a strong traditional suburban GOP base, for instance in the WOW counties of Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha. Also, Vos was able to fend off Steen, but fairly narrowly for someone who has wielded such control over the state Legislature for nearly 10 years. He won by less than 3 percentage points.

What’s important about the U.S. Senate primary race?

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican U.S. Senators seeking reelection this year. One indicator is the June Marquette Law School Poll that showed 46% of Wisconsin voters had an “unfavorable” view of Johnson and only 37% with a “favorable” one.

Democrats so narrowly control the U.S. Senate. It’s 50-50 with a tie breaker to Vice President Kamala Harris. So, this general election face off between Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is one of the key races that could decide control of the Senate for the next two years.

How would you characterize Johnson and Barnes’ different approaches to politics? And what are the parties saying about their candidates?

Johnson is closely aligned with MAGA and Trump. He’s known for peddling COVID and other misinformation, but he’s also made ads about the Joseph Project, a campaign that connects underserved people to manufacturing jobs, and his conservative views on inflation and public safety.

Barnes is a progressive. He has a working-class background and experience as a community organizer. He’s supportive of the Green New Deal and investing in communities as well as reducing police budgets, but not defunding the police.

The race just provides a very stark contrast for voters. The Wisconsin GOP called Barnes a “fringe-left” candidate and that it’s laughable that he “thinks he’ll convince people that he’s a moderate.” Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrats say that Johnson has lost touch with what people in Wisconsin need during his time in office. They say he’s pushing an agenda that benefits him and his special interest donors.

Who did Milwaukee County select as its next sheriff?

Sheriff Earnell Lucas ran for Milwaukee mayor and lost in the February primary. After that he announced he wouldn’t be running to get reelected as sheriff. So his chief deputy, Dr. Denita Ball, ran in the Democratic primary last night and won. Since there was no Republican primary, Ball will be the next Milwaukee County sheriff. She’ll be the first woman to serve in that role.

Ball will have to tackle tough issues like a spike in homicides in the city of Milwaukee and staffing shortages and other difficulties at the Milwaukee County Jail.

What about the other statewide races — like attorney general and lieutenant governor?

Incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul had an unopposed primary. He’ll be up against Fond du Lac Republican prosecutor Eric Toney. Former state Representative Adam Jarchow, a Republican, issued an apparent concession early this morning urging his supporters to unite behind Toney. And Republican Karen Mueller, who ran as an outsider who wants to decertify the 2020 presidential results, received nearly 26% of the vote.

There were both Republican and Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor since Mandela Barnes is running for U.S. Senate. Sarah Rodriguez won the Democratic primary. She’s a registered nurse and state representative from the Wauwatosa/Brookfield area. She’ll be on the ticket with Evers. Roger Roth, a state senator from Appleton, will be on the ballot with Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels.

What is important about the secretary of state race?

The secretary of state race is usually a sleepy race in Wisconsin. The same man, Doug La Follette, has held the office for 44 out of the past 48 years and won last night’s Democratic primary. But he’s challenged by a Republican state Representative Amy Loudenbeck, who the Journal Sentinel reports has significantly outraised him.

Some Wisconsin Republicans, including Michels, want to dissolve the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission. While Michels has been short on specifics as to who he wants to control those duties, other Republicans have floated the option of giving control over elections to the partisan secretary of state’s office if the GOP candidate wins in the general election. JR Ross of WisPolitics has said that key Republicans like Vos and Senate Majority leader Devin LeMahieu are still in favor of maintaining the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.
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