Tim Michels, Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Ramthun debate family leave, DACA, abortion in tight Republican governor's primary

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, from left, construction executive Tim Michels and state Rep. Tim Ramthun of Campbellsport appear during the Republican gubernatorial debate July 24 at the Marquette University Varsity Theatre in Milwaukee.
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Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, pipeline construction executive Tim Michels and state Rep. Tim Ramthun met on stage for the first time Sunday in a televised debate just days before voting begins to decide which candidate will be the Republican nominee running against Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers this fall.

The debate at Marquette University's Varsity Theatre marked the first time Michels had answered questions in a public candidate forum since entering the race in April and surging to the front of the pack after spending $8 million of his own money on his campaign.

More: Tim Ramthun launched his campaign for governor cloaked in a baseless conspiracy theory. During Sunday's debate, he offered a new one.

In the most recent state Marquette University Law School poll, Michels was the most popular among those surveyed but just one percentage point ahead of Kleefisch, well within the poll's margin of error. Ramthun came in a distant third in the June polling. A fourth candidate, Kevin Nicholson, dropped out of the race earlier this month.

But most Republicans who were polled still had not made up their mind, underscoring the tight race Kleefisch and Michels are in as they met on the debate stage Sunday. An Aug. 9 primary will determine who will face Evers in the November general election.

Here are seven takeaways from Sunday's debate:

All three candidates signaled or promised to implement paid family leave

Michels said he would sign a bill requiring employers to provide paid parental leave while Kleefisch and Ramthun signaled they supported the idea — one of few policies that Evers and the Republican candidates for governor agree should become law.

"We need to make sure that everyone that is looking to find a job has the opportunity to find a job. That's how you get the greatest health care that you possibly can — get a job," Michels said. "I will support health care and time off for mothers and fathers."

Kleefisch said part of building the state's workforce is making sure "that moms and dads have time to bond with their babies."

"That's absolutely something that I would look at as governor," she said.

Ramthun said paid family leave would help prevent behavioral issues later on in a child's life that could lead to more crime.

"I think when we want to address societal issues, they start in home," Ramthun said. "When you allow both parents to bond with their children ... and to build that family and make it strong, you'll have less issues down the road if we do it right upfront."

Tim Michels stumbled on DACA question

Michels has proposed incentives for Wisconsin children to get them to college and also has released a television ad promising no public benefits for undocumented immigrants.

But when he was asked by moderator Charles Benson of WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) whether these incentives would be available for DACA students, or students who came to the U.S. as children and are known as "dreamers," Michels appeared to have trouble understanding what kind of students the question referred to.

Michels' campaign manager Patrick McNulty later said there were a lot of questions asked in the 60-minute debate and Michels "absolutely" knows what DACA is.

"The immigration issue isn’t about how we get DACA students into dual enrollment, it is at the southern border and Joe Biden neglecting it,” McNulty said.

Kleefisch campaign chairman Scott Neitzel said "I think everybody saw what they saw, and Rebecca knows what DACA is. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals."

Kleefisch signals abortion procedure used for miscarriages not part of state abortion ban

Abortions have halted in Wisconsin since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, putting back into place a pre-Civil War era law that bans abortions unless the mother's life is in jeopardy.

Since that ruling, confusion has swelled over whether abortion procedures or medication may be performed or administered when a woman is experiencing a miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy — leading to situations that have put women's lives and health at risk, according to recent reporting from The Washington Post.

Kleefisch signaled Sunday she did not consider such procedures to be prohibited by the state's abortion ban.

"Let me be very clear here. Miscarriage care and ectopic pregnancy treatment are not abortion," Kleefisch said.

Kleefisch, Michels and Ramthun also all said they backed the state abortion ban and would not sign into law new exceptions, including allowing abortions for women who are raped.

More: Rebecca Kleefisch raises $3.6 million this year in the governor's race, a record for nonincumbents but behind Evers

More: The dominance of Milwaukee's suburbs in Republican primaries will be put to the test in August

Surprisingly, gas prices didn't come up

Surprisingly, none of the candidates brought up the price of gasoline despite the focus Republicans have put on Evers' and President Joe Biden's administrations because of the rising costs to drive a car.

The price of gas also has emerged as a flashpoint between the GOP primary race's frontrunners, Kleefisch and Michels.

Kleefisch has filmed television ads, including one with former Gov. Scott Walker, accusing Michels of pushing to raise the state's gas tax because of his connections to groups that have advocated to raise the gas tax in the state and elsewhere.

Michels has said Kleefisch's ads are false and that he does not support raising the gas tax. He has said he would implement a gas tax holiday, repeal a state law that prevents retailers from selling gas below cost, and opposes tying the gas tax to inflation.

Gas prices hit record highs in Wisconsin earlier this summer but have fallen in recent weeks.

Michels signals too much money is spent on K-12

The 2018 race for governor was fought over education issues and after statewide polling showed much of the electorate believed their schools were not receiving enough funding and would support raising their own taxes to get more money to classrooms.

Now, in 2022, Michels is signaling he will cut K-12 spending if elected.

When asked about his budget priorities, Michels included making sure there is education reform in Wisconsin and suggested it’s "the definition of insanity" to throw more money at education.

“There is no greater investment in future generations of Wisconsin, the problem is we’re already throwing so much money at education,” Michels said. “That’s been the fix for the last 10, 20 or 30 years. More money for education.”

MPS heading for a breakup under these candidates

Republican lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to break up Milwaukee Public Schools into smaller districts — an idea Evers vetoed but remains alive under Kleefisch, Michels and Ramthun.

The three candidates used the question to jump at a chance to slam the state’s largest school district.

“If MPS was a business it would be bankrupt, it is completely and utterly failing the students in Milwaukee,” Michels said.

He was followed by Kleefisch who said it was her original idea to break up the district — and she would push forward with doing so, if elected.

Trump barely mentioned

Former President Donald Trump was mentioned only once — by a debate moderator — but his presence still loomed on the debate stage.

All three candidates on stage Sunday made a pilgrimage to Trump's Florida resort Mar-A-Lago earlier this year in an attempt to get Trump's backing — a crucial endorsement in the Republican primary that Michels ultimately won. But none of the candidates mentioned Trump on Sunday, despite the influence he still has in Republican politics in Wisconsin.

Instead, the candidates pushed for overhauls of the state's election system and alleged voter fraud manipulated the 2020 presidential election — a claim first pushed by Trump and one that has not been supported by evidence since.

More: Trump called Wisconsin Assembly Speaker to continue pressure on false election claims

Trump decided to back Michels after learning Kleefisch's daughter went to homecoming in 2019 with the son of state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative justice who was a swing vote in several unsuccessful lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies to overturn Wisconsin's 2020 election, Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice reported.

The three candidates will meet again at 9 a.m. Wednesday on WISN-AM (1130) for a radio debate hosted by conservative host Dan O'Donnell. The three candidates also plan to participate in a town hall debate hosted by WISN (Channel 12) 12 on Aug. 1.

Contact Molly Beck and Corrinne Hess at molly.beck@jrn.com and chess@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter at @MollyBeck and @CorriHess.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Michels, Kleefisch, Ramthun spar in Republican governor debate