Tight Race For GOP Gubernatorial Nomination In Wisconsin, Which Is Once Again A Battleground State In 2022

Wisconsin politics have been the subject of national media attention for well over a decade, since before it became one of the handful of states that now determines presidential elections. It started with the fight between Democrats and Republicans over Act 10, the labor law reform ultimately signed into law by then-Governor Scott Walker (R) in March 2011.

Many Americans have since become accustomed to national media coverage of state legislative developments like the 2021 Texas abortion law, the election reforms enacted in Georgia last year that caused Major League Baseball to move its Allstar game out of Atlanta, and a number of bills signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). Yet intense national coverage of statehouse debates is a relatively new phenomenon.

Act 10 was the first state legislative debate to garner significant national media attention. Then-President Barack Obama weighed in on the matter and network cameras descended upon Madison to cover the throngs of union-backed protestors whose storming of the state capitol building did millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the 105-year-old building, according to estimates.

Though they have to wait two more years to once again play an important role in determining the outcome of a presidential election, Wisconsin voters will still be inundated with political ads in 2022. That’s because Democrats are set to mount a well-funded effort to beat Senator Ron Johnson (R) this November, while Republicans are looking to take back the governor’s mansion, as Wisconsin is considered a top gubernatorial pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Since incumbent Governor Tony Evers (D) is running for re-election, Democrats have the advantage of avoiding a costly and divisive primary fight like that on the Republican side. With voters nearly two weeks away from selecting the GOP gubernatorial nominee, the candidates — former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, businessman Tim Michels and state Assemblyman Timothy Ramthun — squared off on Sunday, July 24, in what was the only televised debate between the candidates before the August 9 primary.

A Marquette University Law School poll released on June 22 found 27% of respondents supporting Michels and 26% backing Kleefisch, meaning it’s a statistical dead heat between the two candidates as the race enters the final stretch. The Sunday evening debate highlighted key differences between the two candidates.

Clarity From Kleefisch, While Michels Leaves Details TBD

The Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial debate kicked off with all three candidates discussing taxes and the need for state tax relief in their initial remarks. While all pointed to the state’s more than $5 billion surplus as proof that the state tax code is collecting too much money and needs to be reformed, former Lt. Governor Kleefisch was the most specific when it came to the form of tax relief she’d pursue.

Wisconsin has a graduated income tax with a top rate of 7.65%. During the Sunday evening debate, Kleefisch stated that she would seek to move the state to a flat tax of 3.54%, which is the current bottom rate in Wisconsin. Kleefisch added that her goal “is to eventually eliminate the income tax.”

Moving Wisconsin to a flat 3.54% income tax would provide relief to millions of Wisconsin taxpayers, including hundreds of thousands of small businesses that file under the individual income tax system. According to IRS data, more than 356,000 sole proprietors, along with more than 145,000 partnership and S-corp owners, file under the individual income tax system in Wisconsin. They would all see their job-creating capacity increase under the tax proposal laid out by Kleefisch.

In addition to being the most specific on the direction in which she would like to take the state’s tax code, Kleefisch is also the only candidate who has made it clear to Wisconsin voters, in writing, that she would veto any net tax hike that might be sent to her desk. While Rebecca Kleefisch has signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written commitment to Wisconsin residents to veto net tax hikes, Tim Michels and Timothy Ramthun have thus far declined to make that same commitment to Wisconsin residents.

In addition to calling for income tax relief, Kleefisch also proposed cutting the state’s personal property tax and called for a relocation of state agencies out of Madison to other, lower cost communities. Many Republican primary voters will likely find Kleefisch to be in good company in signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has been signed by Governors Ron DeSantis, Kim Reynolds, Doug Ducey, Greg Abbott, Bill Lee, and Chris Sununu, among others. In fact, thanks to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia last November, there are now 16 incumbent governors who are signers of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge — the most in history.

Whereas Kleefisch provided the most details about her policy priorities during the debate, Michels was less specific. When the debate moderator pressed Michels to name a reform he’d pursue upon taking office, Michels alluded to an earlier reference about his interest in auditing state agencies in a manner similar to that with which he monitors the performance of his business.

Whoever wins the primary on August 9 will go on to face Governor Tony Evers, who is trying to portray himself as a tax cutter despite having proposed billions in higher state taxes. While Evers has been touting the income tax cut he signed last year, the GOP nominee is likely to remind voters that, had Evers gotten his way, he would’ve enacted a more than billion dollar tax hike last year as opposed to the income tax cut sent to him by the GOP-run state assembly and senate.

The 2021-2023 budget proposed by Governor Evers would’ve imposed a $1.6 billion net tax hike over two years. Evers’ previous budget proposal for 2019-2021, had it been adopted, would’ve resulted in a $1.08 billion net tax hike over two years.

“Together, Evers’ two budget proposals would have resulted in net tax increases that increased the tax burden an average of around $600 for every man, woman, and child in the state,” the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based think tank, reported earlier this year. “As we reported, Evers 2021-23 budget would have raised taxes an average of $9,300 on each taxpayer impacted by his tax hikes.”

Even though his proposal was rejected by the GOP-led statehouse, Governor Evers’ attempt to raise the state gas tax will be a likely topic for campaign fodder between now and November, especially if gas prices remain as high as they are now. “The Evers’ gas tax increase alone would have resulted in a 36% increase in Wisconsin’s gas tax, moving us into the 5 highest gas tax states, with an increase of 12 cents per gallon,” notes MacIver. “Indexing the tax to CPI as Evers proposed means that the gas tax would continue to shoot up along with inflation.”

There is a good chance Governor Evers or members of his campaign will try to claim his GOP opponent is actually the one who would raise taxes. The effectiveness of such allegations will likely depend on who the nominee is. Kleefisch not only has a long record that will cause such allegations to fall flat, she has a written commitment to point to that makes clear no net tax hike will be signed into law if she is elected. Michels and Ramthun have neither.

No matter whom Wisconsin Republicans select as their nominee for governor, the general election is likely to be decided by a slim margin. The general election result will have significant policy implications, determining whether Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature will have a new governor who shares their vision for reform, or whether Tony Evers will continue to wield his veto stamp for four more years. On August 9, Wisconsin Republicans will decide who they’re putting up against Evers in this consequential November matchup.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickgleason/2022/07/25/tight-race-for-gop-gubernatorial-nomination-in-wisconsin-which-is-once-again-a-battleground-state-in-2022/