The Panic Candidate

Dan O’Donnell analyzes the state of the Republican gubernatorial race

Apr. 12, 2022
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

Never let it be said that Republicans are a calm, cool, and collected bunch, especially when they seem to be on the precipice of electoral victory.  In what is shaping up to be one of the biggest GOP years in history, Wisconsin Republicans have somehow managed to convince themselves that they can’t possibly win.

Now, less than four months before the gubernatorial primary, a growing number of influential figures in state Republican circles have been floating the idea that neither of the two major candidates, Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson, stand a chance against Governor Evers this fall.

They have spent months trying unsuccessfully to recruit another candidate to get into the race.  First former Congressman Sean Duffy declined.  So did White House Chief of Staff and state and national GOP chairman Reince Priebus.  And businessman and former Senate candidate Eric Hovde.

Just this week, four-term Governor, Health and Human Services secretary, and UW System President Tommy Thompson passed on a run after apparently very seriously considering it.  Now all eyes are on Michels Corporation head and former Senate candidate Tim Michels, who is widely expected to join the race this week.

This all feels very familiar.  In 2016, national Republicans were in an absolute panic that Donald Trump was running away with the presidential nomination.  In what was shaping up to be a big GOP year, a growing number of influential figures in national Republican politics convinced themselves (and many voters) that Trump didn’t stand a chance against Hillary Clinton.



They spent months trying unsuccessfully to recruit another candidate to get into the race.  First Mitt Romney turned them down.  Then Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.  Then General James Mattis.  Finally, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who had been spearheading this effort, threw up his hands in frustration and suggested that National Review writer David French run.

All of the panic was for naught, however: In one of the biggest upsets in American political history, Trump—the candidate who couldn’t possibly win—did.  As flawed as he was, with as much baggage as he had, he still rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the Obama presidency and general dislike of Clinton to the White House.

If Trump could do it in a year in which Republicans actually lost seats in both the House and Senate, then why can’t either Kleefisch or Nicholson in what President Biden’s own pollster calls “the worst political environment for Democrats in [his] lifetime?”  Neither of them has a fraction of the baggage Trump had.  While it is true that neither has the name recognition Trump had and that Evers is nowhere near as unlikeable as Clinton, the suggestion that neither can win is nonsensical.

Michels is, of course, a far more serious candidate than David French ever would have been, but one can’t help but see the similarities between the quixotic quest for an anti-Trump candidate six years ago and Wisconsin Republicans’ panic over their choice between Kleefisch and Nicholson.

Either one can clearly win, and so can Michels…provided he is able to in less than four months remind the average voter who exactly he is and explain to them why he needed to parachute into the race at the last possible moment to save Republicans from a choice between two eminently qualified candidates.

More likely than not, his candidacy will have the same effect on the race as a widened field had on stopping Trump.  When neither Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, nor John Kasich—the final three “non-Trump” candidates—would exit the race so as to coalesce the non-Trump votes around one man, Trump was able to beat all three with ease.

If the idea behind the Michels candidacy is to wrestle the nomination away from Kleefisch, the longtime frontrunner, then it seems equally misplaced.  If he can’t immediately skyrocket to the top of the polls, then all he will be doing for the four months he is in the race is splitting the non-Kleefisch vote between Nicholson and himself.  Assembly Rep Timothy Ramthun, who is allegedly running a gubernatorial campaign, would take a percent or three as well.

Kleefisch will ironically become stronger the moment Michels gets into the race since, if she is as weak among certain demographic groups as Republican insiders fear, then those voters (who presumably are not now and would never vote for Kleefisch in either a primary or general election) will have two legitimate non-Kleefisch candidates from which to choose.

Michels will be able to self-fund his candidacy, which is a huge advantage, but if he needs to spend a fortune reintroducing himself to voters instead of laying out a comprehensive case for his candidacy beyond “I’m not Kevin or Becky,” then all he is doing is handing the nomination to the very candidate he was recruited to stop.