10 Takeaways from Wisconsin's Partisan Primary
From the Kleefisch collapse to state legislative races and everything in between.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The votes have been counted, and Wisconsin’s Aug. 9 partisan primary is in the books.
And what a primary it was. But before we move on to the general election, let’s recombobulate, and take a look through the results.
1. The Kleefisch collapse
Going into election day, the Republican gubernatorial primary was viewed as a genuine toss-up. Tim Michels and Rebecca Kleefisch were neck-and-neck in the polls. But it was Michels who ended up victorious with a fairly significant 5.2% margin – 47.2% to 42.0% – ahead of the former lieutenant governor.
All things considered, it was a stunning collapse and loss for Kleefisch. It was a loss, too, for the Republican establishment in Wisconsin that backed her, from former governor Scott Walker to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to lobbying groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Tavern League to the bulk of the Republicans serving in the state legislature. Kleefisch’s gubernatorial campaign seemed to begin the moment Walker lost to now-Gov. Tony Evers in 2018, and for a time, that establishment backing made it seem preordained that she would be the nominee. She spent most of the race as the overwhelming frontrunner. But despite that support and despite that three-year head start and despite her early lead, she was unable to consolidate support in the Republican Party, opening the door for someone – anyone! – to make a run against her.
That not-Kleefisch wing of the Republican Party cycled through potential candidates – Sean Duffy? John Macco? Bill McCoshen? Eric Hovde? Reince Priebus? Tommy Thompson? – until it finally landed on Tim Michels, who returned from the east coast to launch his candidacy on April 25, was able to put a ton of money into his own campaign, land the primary’s coveted Trump endorsement, and prevail in a hard-fought race that revealed deep schisms in the Republican Party.
The cracks in the Kleefisch campaign, however, were becoming apparent even before Michels upended the race. She seemed like she was tripping over herself in an effort to get the Trump endorsement, especially as her views on the legitimacy of the 2020 election kept changing, and her campaign seemed extremely online, with what seemed like a constant need to comment on every last piece of news that came through.
In late May, I wrote a column about a lead that looked to be slipping away from Kleefisch. Even then, though, she was still the likely favorite. But the campaign team she put together proved not up to the task, and it didn’t even seem like Michels had to pull out all the stops to win this one. I have said many times that she is a formidable candidate. She just ran a terrible campaign.
One of the more revealing moments of the campaign’s final stretch came from Scott Walker, who gave a lengthy interview to Wisconsin Right Now, where, amid a lot of religitaging some very insider-ey battles, he really goes after Michels and his campaign, and members of the Michels camp really fired back. It was a baffling final stretch message of an aggrieved campaign, desperate to find any way to punch through the noise and cling to a relevance that appears to be quickly fading.
In many ways, Kleefisch’s loss in Tuesday’s primary is the end of the Walker Era in Wisconsin. He has remarkably little influence over his party just four years later, and instead his party seems at war with itself over the former governor’s legacy, over the 2020 results, over Robin Vos’ leadership (we’ll get there), over everything. It’s a party in utter disarray.
2. Where did Tim Michels win?
We’ll have some time now to really examine Tim Michels’ gubernatorial candidacy and campaign against Tony Evers in the less than 90 days to go before the Nov. 8 election, but it’s important to look at just how – and where – he won this race.
The challenge for Kleefisch going into this race would be whether she could bridge the more Waukesha County-centric suburban base of the Walker era with the more rural base that’s emerged in the Republican Party since Trump’s arrival. Talking with Kristin Brey on As Goes Wisconsin last week, I mentioned that it was going to be really interesting to see the map of where each candidate would find their support in this race. Polling before the race suggested that Kleefisch was way ahead with suburban voters, while Trump-backed Michels was out front with rural voters.
Largely, that’s how things played out. Kleefisch won just 10 counties to Michels’ 62, many of those in the Milwaukee and Madison suburbs. But it was the margins in those suburban counties that really held her back. In each of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Milwaukee counties, her margin was less than 7%. She lost outright in Washington County (further evidence that the WOW counties are breaking up). She didn’t do well enough in these more populous suburban counties to make up for where she lost in other more rural counties, where Michels was often north of 50% and Kleefisch was in the 20’s.
3. Mandela Barnes is your Democratic nominee
I wrote a bit about this race before the primary, after the lieutenant governor won the race, and I wrote a bit more in an opinion piece at The New York Times on Mandela Barnes, the race for Senate in Wisconsin, and a generational shift in American politics. Read that one here.
4. Turnout was pretty good!
According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, turnout was at its highest level for a partisan primary in 40 years. That’s great!
What’s not great? That record turnout was just 26% of Wisconsin’s voting-age population.
Regardless, Wisconsin’s election was well-administered (as per usual) and those working the polls and helping ensure a safe, secure election should be commended for their efforts. Thank you, election workers!
5. Robin Vos almost lost
We like to joke that in Wisconsin, there has never been a normal news day. That was certainly the case on Monday, as Trump-endorsed Republican primary challenger Adam Steen, who was running against longtime Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, had organized a “Toss Vos” event that had to be seen to be believed.
I’ve had a lot of things to say about Robin Vos over the years. He’s been an absolute disaster for Wisconsin. But never did it cross my mind to print out a photo of him, attach it to a homemade doll, and launch it into a field.
While this was happening, and despite the Trump endorsement and the wave of attention this Vos-Steen race attracted, I was under no illusions that Vos was actually at risk of losing. But as it turned out, the race was actually pretty close. Vos won, but just by 51.3% to 48.7%. He won by only 260 votes! Just a remarkably poor showing from one of the most powerful Republicans in Wisconsin, someone very few people seem to like.
He didn’t ultimately lose, of course, but the fact that he was meaningfully pushed in this election is part of the story of the night with Kleefisch’s loss, too: The era that Vos presided over in Wisconsin is ending. Something different is emerging. What that ultimately will be will be in many ways decided this November.
6. Adam Jarchow loses the primary for Attorney General
The Republican primary for Attorney General proved to be a three-way split between Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, who won the race, and Adam Jarchow and Karen Mueller. Toney won by just 0.6% over Jarchow, who had a huge fundraising advantage with groups spending nearly $1 million to back him.
Essentially, Mueller’s candidacy split the further-right Republican voters, giving the race to Toney. Compared to his competition, Toney has seemed like the moderate, but has made some of the most egregious overtures to placate the election denier base with over-the-top prosecutions of instances of voter fraud that can be best characterized as honest mistakes from people who don’t vote regularly.
What these results really come down to is that this is yet another loss in a winnable race for one Adam Jarchow. In 2018, Jarchow lost a bid for State Senate, getting crushed by 11% by Democrat Patty Schachtner in a deep red district that Republican Rob Stafsholt won by a 20% margin in 2020. In this race, he had a major fundraising advantage and a ton of establishment support, but was unable to prevail, losing votes to attorney Karen Mueller, who campaigned on covid conspiracies and election trutherism. Which, if you’ve followed Jarchow on Twitter for any period of time, is a bit ironic. No matter, he now has the distinction of being one of the most prolific losers in recent electoral history in the state of Wisconsin.
7. So ends #TimTime
Timothy Ramthun represents the most pro-Trump State Assembly district in Wisconsin, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he ran for governor on a platform of decertifying the 2020 election. He was hailed as a conspiracy theorist throughout the race, even though his positions on the election aren’t drastically different from Michels and Kleefisch who’ve peddled all kinds of election conspiracies themselves. But Ramthun was a different breed, backed by the likes of pillow magnate Mike Lindell and extremist former general Michael Flynn, and not surprisingly, Ramthun did not do well, ending up with just 6% of the vote.
But he did get 6% of the vote on a platform of saying your votes shouldn’t count. More than 41,000 people voted for that message.
The place where he did best was in northwestern Wisconsin, across the border from the Twin Cities, where he notched 15% in St. Croix County, 16.5% in Pierce County, and was north of 20% in Polk County. It’s not clear what we should make of this, other than perhaps to keep a closer eye on what’s happening in those counties from a political perspective.
Anyway, best of luck to Timothy “#TimTime” Ramthun in all of his future vote-canceling endeavors.
8. The race for House in the 3rd District is going to be an extremely important one
As Democrats face a steep uphill battle to hold on to the House this fall, the most competitive congressional race in the state will be in the 3rd District. Democratic Rep. Ron Kind is retiring, and this district has been trending to the right in recent elections. Trump won in the district in 2020 even though Kind held on to the seat. This makes it a top pick-up opportunity for Republicans as they look to ride the midterm wave.
The candidate Republicans have cleared the decks for in this open seat, with no primary challenger, is unhinged insurrectionist Derrick Van Orden. He’ll now face Brad Pfaff, the La Crosse area state senator who won the primary with 38.9% of the vote, defeating Rebecca Cooke (a strong showing at 31.2%), Deb McGrath (19.1%) and Mark Neumann (10.8%).
Pfaff’s narrow victory in 2020 helped Democrats preserve Gov. Evers’ veto. He was also the agriculture secretary-designee under Evers, was a long-time staff member for Kind, and worked for the USDA under President Obama. He’ll be the underdog in this race, but this will certainly be one to watch.
9. Darrin Madison will head to Madison
Sometimes, the primary is the election. That was the case in the new 10th Assembly District, currently held by David Bowen, who is not seeking re-election. The district became more suburban in redistricting, and Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy made a run for this seat. But Darrin Madison Jr., a democratic socialist who was endorsed by Bowen, was able to win a significant victory over Kennedy, 58% to 42%.
There’s no Republican running in this district, so Madison will head to Madison. He’ll join Ryan Clancy, another democratic socialist running an uncontested general election race this fall, as two Milwaukee-area socialists heading to the state legislature. Madison has also been an organizer with African-American Roundtable and was endorsed by BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities). Some very interesting coalitions are emerging in Milwaukee.
10. The State Senate’s 5th District will be one to watch
The State Senate’s 5th District is going to be one of the most competitive in the state legislative elections. Well, it was going to be, before Republican redistricting moved the goalposts, making it a lean GOP seat. Republican Dale Kooyenga is not seeking re-election in the seat, and in somewhat of a surprise, Jessica Katzenmeyer defeated Tim Palzewicz 54% to 46%.
Katzenmeyer is the first transgender woman to advance past the primary for State Senate. She also ran in 2020 for State Assembly, losing to Joe Sanfelippo, 54.7% to 45.1%. She will be going up against former state representative Rob Hutton, who was unseated by Sara Rodriguez – who just won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor – in the Assembly’s 13th District in 2020. This race in the western Milwaukee suburbs is going to be one the most important races in the State Senate this fall.
ICYMI: The Recombobulation Area’s Dan Shafer joined Kristin Brey on As Goes Wisconsin on Thursday (listen here) and joined Luke Mathers on Dueling Tangents on Wednesday (listen here) to discuss the partisan primary results. He also joined Patti Vasquez on WCPT 820 and Heartland Signal, as he always does on Wednesday.
And a heads up for this week: He’ll be joining Pat Kreitlow on Monday morning on UpNorth News and Joan Esposito on Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. on WCPT 820 to discuss his piece in The New York Times on Mandela Barnes and the race for Senate in Wisconsin.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.