How Tim Michels broke with Republican voting history and prevailed without winning Milwaukee's suburbs

·4 min read

For the better part of two decades, the path to victory in Wisconsin’s big GOP primaries ran through Milwaukee’s relatively populous Republican suburbs.

That changed Tuesday night.

In a shift befitting of the Trump Era, winner Tim Michels achieved his victory despite narrowly losing metropolitan Milwaukee by dominating most of the rest of the state.

Endorsed by Donald Trump, Michels won his biggest margins in the “Trumpiest” parts of Wisconsin, winning small rural counties by 20, 30 and 40 points.

Lubar Logo
Lubar Logo

Roughly speaking, Tuesday’s primary repeated a remarkably persistent pattern in the state in which Republican “insider” candidates perform best in the populous Milwaukee to Madison corridor and Republican “outsider” candidates perform best in the north and west.

Almost every other time this has happened, the more “establishment” Republicans who carried the southeast also won statewide — because they dominated the Milwaukee market, especially the traditionally ultra-red WOW counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington.

But this time around, despite the support of former Gov. Scott Walker, Rebecca Kleefisch did not achieve the victory margins she needed in the Milwaukee suburbs to offset Michels’ big leads elsewhere.

Kleefisch won Waukesha by only 7 points.  By contrast, the winner of the 2018 Senate primary, Leah Vukmir, won Waukesha by 37 points over Kevin Nicholson. The winner of the 2016 presidential primary, Ted Cruz, won Waukesha by 39 points over Trump. The winner of the 2010 primary for governor, Scott Walker, won Waukesha by 55 points over Mark Neumann.

Kleefisch won Ozaukee by only 5 points.

She won Milwaukee County by only 5 points.

And she lost Washington County by 9 points.

Tim Michels claims victory in the Republican primary for governor Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at Tuscan Hall Venue and Catering in Waukesha. He will face Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in the general election. At left, is his wife, Barbara Michels.
Tim Michels claims victory in the Republican primary for governor Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at Tuscan Hall Venue and Catering in Waukesha. He will face Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in the general election. At left, is his wife, Barbara Michels.

Those southeastern counties collectively have represented almost a third of the GOP primary vote in recent cycles. They pack a huge political punch. But while the Kleefisch margin in metropolitan Milwaukee was narrow, the Michels margin in many smaller counties was huge.

The only counties Michels lost outside of the state’s southern third were Brown, Marathon, Portage and Menominee.

In terms of the map, Michels accomplished two equally important things: running up the score in small counties and remaining very competitive in big counties.

His massive personal spending was no doubt one important ingredient. But so was the backing of Trump. Tuesday’s primary suggested that even in GOP suburbs that have a history of going with more experienced and traditional candidates, the appeal of a Trump-backed candidate claiming the mantle of outsider was significant.

It also showed the power of Trump to help sway the GOP vote, even though his former running mate Mike Pence and former Gov. Scott Walker (the dominant Republican in his state not too long ago) both split with Trump in their own endorsements.

As a result, the WOW counties did not crown the Republican winner in Wisconsin, because the WOW counties were themselves divided in this very divisive primary fight, because Wisconsin’s smaller counties spoke with a more unified voice and because the center of gravity in the GOP has shifted in a rural direction.

In fact, the WOW counties made up a smaller share of the statewide primary vote in 2022 (19%) than they did in GOP primaries for Senate in 2018 and 2012 and for governor in 2010, when the share was 22%.

Does the way this Republican primary campaign unfolded pose any concerns for Republicans in November?

The bitter tone of the Michels-Kleefisch battle, the way party leaders split over the candidates, Trump’s nearly successful effort to knock off GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in a primary Tuesday, and the gaps in the rural and suburban vote do raise the question of whether Republicans can put their differences entirely to rest as they try to unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this fall.

Craig Gilbert
Craig Gilbert

That will be especially important in some of the key counties that Kleefisch won — Brown (Green Bay), Marathon (Wausau) and, of course, Waukesha, where the party is trying to reverse an erosion of support since Trump first ran in 2016.

In this day and age, GOP voters have frequently been able to come together over their dislike, disdain and disapproval of Democratic candidates. The Republican base is mobilized. Kleefisch urged her supporters Tuesday night to get behind Michels. Her political and policy differences with Michels were small.

But to defeat Evers in November, the party will have to unify after the most expensive and bitter GOP primary for statewide office in memory.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Tim Michels wins Wisconsin's GOP primary without claiming key suburbs