MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tim Michels, a wealthy businessman endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican primary for Wisconsin governor on Tuesday and will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a contest that could reshape elections in the marquee battleground.
Michels defeated former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence and had backing from establishment Republicans, including ex-Gov. Scott Walker.
In her concession speech, Kleefisch said, "The fight now is truly against Tony Evers and the liberals who want to take away our way of life."
Both Michels and Kleefisch falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged, a lie Trump has pushed in an effort to overturn his loss to Joe Biden. Michels said decertifying the results of the 2020 contest was not a priority but said "everything will be on the table." He supports other changes to voting and elections, including dismantling the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin elections.
The governor's race was the latest proxy war between Trump and Pence, one-time partners who have backed opposing candidates in other swing states as they try to push the GOP in different directions.
The primary comes a day after FBI agents searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
In the Democratic Senate primary, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the nomination to face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump's most vocal supporters, after Barnes' top rivals dropped out of the race late last month. The matchup is among the last to be set before the November general election, when control of the currently 50-50 split Senate is up for grabs, and Democrats see Wisconsin as one of their best opportunities to flip a seat.
Wisconsin's most powerful Republican, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also faced a Trump-backed challenger. Trump endorsed Adam Steen after Vos rejected the former president's pressure to decertify the 2020 results.
Tuesday's outcomes have far-reaching consequences beyond Wisconsin, a state that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and where 2022 will be seen as a bellwether for the 2024 presidential race. The person elected governor this fall will be in office for the presidential election and will be able to sign or veto changes to election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The next governor and U.S. senator also may sway decisions on issues from abortion to education and taxes.
"We're a 50-50 state and so every race in Wisconsin, just by definition, is going to be decided by a few percentage points one way or another," said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. "And those few percentage points in Wisconsin may well determine what the course of the nation is in the coming years."
Elsewhere Tuesday, a Trump-backed candidate won the GOP primary for Senate in Connecticut, a state that's long been home to the Republican establishment. Republican National Committee member Leora Levy, whom Trump endorsed last week, will face two-term Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal after she defeated former state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who had support from the state party. Voters in Vermont — the only state to never have a woman in its congressional delegation — chose a woman, Becca Balint, as the Democratic nominee for the state's lone House seat. She is favored in the race to replace Rep. Peter Welch, who won the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat long held by Patrick Leahy, who is retiring. And Minnesota Republicans chose Dr. Scott Jensen, a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic endorsed by the state GOP, to face Gov. Tim Walz.
But the most-watched races were in Wisconsin, where Trump has kept up his pressure campaign to cancel President Joe Biden's 2020 victory. Biden won by nearly 21,000 votes, four years after Trump also narrowly won the state by roughly the same margin. The 2020 outcome has been upheld in two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple lawsuits.
Evers has made voting and elections a focus of his own campaign, telling voters he's the only candidate who will defend democracy and "we are that close to not having our vote count in the state of Wisconsin."
Both Michels and Kleefisch said overturning the 2020 election results was not a priority. But they said they would dismantle the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin elections and would support prohibitions on voters having someone else turn in their absentee ballots, as well as ballot drop boxes located anywhere other than staffed clerk offices.
Michels is co-owner of Wisconsin's largest construction company and has touted his work to build his family's business. He lost the 2004 Senate race to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and has been a major donor to GOP politicians.
At a rally on Friday, Trump praised Michels as an "incredible success story." He criticized Kleefisch as part of the "failed establishment" and also took aim at Vos. He told supporters that Michels was the better choice to defeat Evers.
Michels pledged that "we are going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin." He also said he will bring "law and order" back to Wisconsin, criticized Evers' handling of schools and blamed Biden for rising prices.
GOP state Rep. Tim Ramthun also made a long-shot bid for governor.
Barnes, in his victory speech in Milwaukee, emphasized his middle-class background and upbringing while casting Johnson as "self-serving" and "an out-of-touch politician" who cares only about special interests and wealthy donors.
"It is time for a change, everybody," said Barnes, who would be Wisconsin's first Black senator if elected. "It's time for us to be represented by somebody who shares our experiences."
Johnson called Barnes the "most radical left candidate" Democrats could have chosen.
"This is a contest between radical left socialism versus freedom and prosperity," he said.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Reporter Gretchen Ehlke contributed from Thiensville, Wis.