How GOP Governor Candidates Are 'Blowing It' in the Midwest




  • In Politics
  • 2022-09-23 08:53:39Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by Luis G.
Photo Illustration by Luis G.  

They're trailing in the polls, not raising much money, running bare-bones campaign operations, and garnering gripes from exasperated compatriots in their home states.

They are also, in theory, supposed to be some of the Republican Party's best bets anywhere in the country to flip governors' offices this fall.

With weeks to go until Election Day, the Republican candidates for governor in three Midwestern battlegrounds-Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota-are floundering in their challenges to Democratic incumbents.

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In Michigan, former actress and MAGA media personality Tudor Dixon began the general election with just two full-time campaign staffers, according to MLive.com, and had roughly 28 times less cash on hand than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Next door in Wisconsin, businessman Tim Michels emerged victorious from a primary in which he spent $12 million of his own money-only to run an apparently shoestring campaign against Gov. Tony Evers with a handful of full-time staffers and plenty of bad blood left over from that primary.

And in Minnesota, the COVID-skeptic doctor Scott Jensen is trailing Gov. Tim Walz badly in fundraising and polling while his lightning-rod lieutenant governor nominee-the former pro football player Matt Birk-traveled out of state to give a paid speech to an insurance conference.

In a midterm year favoring the party out of power, these Great Lakes states were supposed to be especially fertile terrain for Republicans to recapture control. Michigan and Wisconsin are two of the most perennially hard-fought states in the country; Minnesota leans more Democratic, but it has been targeted more energetically by the GOP in recent years.

This trio of Democratic governors was elected in the blue wave year of 2018. Since then, each has endured significant backlash from their attempts to manage the pandemic that defined their governorships.

But instead of being on the chopping block, these incumbents are sitting in far better shape than anyone anticipated-in large part because of the weakness of the candidates Republicans nominated.

The lives of millions of people stand to be affected by the outcomes of these races. In Wisconsin and Michigan, the GOP controls majorities in the state legislatures, leaving Democratic governors as the backstop to opposing the implementation of their agendas. If Evers and Whitmer survive their challenges, they can continue to fight, for example, implementation of the abortion bans their states passed before the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973.

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To some Republicans, it's not hard to identify a leading culprit for this state of affairs: Donald Trump. Wisconsin and Michigan saw crowded and competitive primaries, in which the former president endorsed the ultimate winners. He may have boosted them to the general election but papered over weaknesses in their campaigns, said Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist.

"This is part of the Trump legacy," Heye said. "Candidates who otherwise would be considered fringe candidates can win nominations and hold Republicans back, because they're unelectable in their state."

Operatives in both parties caution that anything can happen in a battleground state and fully expect the races to tighten as Election Day nears. David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors' Association, said that the organization has anticipated these states "would remain competitive all the way through November."

"Regardless of the candidate, battleground states are called that for a reason, and we're not going to take anything for granted," Turner said. "Republican extremism is too dangerous, and the political environment too unwieldy, to make sure voters know what's at stake."

The Republican Governors' Association did not respond to requests for comment. The group has reserved over $3 million in TV ad time to back up Dixon in the last four weeks of the election, and it has spent or reserved over $6.5 million for Michels. But RGA has been more active elsewhere, reserving $11 million to boost Kari Lake in Arizona, for example.

The DGA, meanwhile, has reserved $23 million in ads for Whitmer and $21 million for Evers, putting those states in the group's top three in terms of investment. Neither the DGA or RGA is active in Minnesota.

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In Michigan, Dixon-who gained notoriety for hosting a show on the right-wing network Real America's Voice-came out on top after a bruising primary in August. But since, observers in Michigan have been waiting for her general election campaign to emerge.

Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP and a vocal critic of Trump and his movement, said Dixon is "running the shittiest campaign since the dawn of time."

After a quiet post-primary August, MLive.com reported that Whitmer had held 26 fundraisers in 35 days and had banked $14 million for her campaign. Dixon had no fundraisers in that period and had banked just over $500,000 for her campaign.

Former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party in 2019 and eventually became the first Libertarian Party member in Congress, told The Daily Beast he's "hardly noticed" there's a campaign for governor in Michigan. "It's a marked difference from cycles in the early-to-mid-2010s," Amash said.

In recent days, Dixon's campaign has ramped up with some events. But instead of appealing to the broader electorate, she has continued to court the GOP's right flank with hardline positions on abortion and rejecting the 2020 election. On Wednesday, a Dixon campaign stop garnered headlines when she vowed to ban "pornographic books" in Michigan schools, without specifying what she meant.

"She's running an aggressive and low-budget campaign for school board, but she happens to be running for governor," Timmer told The Daily Beast. "It's hard to understate how unlike any other statewide campaign-Republican or Democratic-it is. There's just nothing to compare it to."

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In response, Dixon communications director Sara Broadwater did not dispute any of the factual details about the candidate's staffing and fundraising disadvantages. She accused the Whitmer campaign of working with The Daily Beast to drop a "dishonest hit piece" on Dixon because the governor is "scared."

A poll from the Detroit Free Press released Thursday found Whitmer leading Dixon by 16 points, building on an 11-point lead from the month before.

In Wisconsin, Michels' post-primary strategy has also irked local Republicans. On Sept. 12, a conservative blog in Wisconsin tweeted they were "becoming extremely concerned about the Michels campaign with bare-bones campaign staff members wearing 3 different hats and communication is extremely poor."

During his primary, the businessman armed with Trump's backing-and a considerable personal fortune-spent $1 million per week to defeat former Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch. But that money has not flowed so freely since the August primary. As Michels is badly outgunned on Wisconsin airwaves by Evers and his allies, Republicans are wondering why he's losing ground.

"Despite Michels having unlimited financial resources, he's still not putting it away the way he could be," a GOP operative who has run races in Wisconsin told The Daily Beast. "I don't see anything right now that would fundamentally shift the dynamic unless there's another Black Swan economic report coming out."

In an article posted on the website of a Wisconsin talk radio station, opinion writer Chris Conley put it more bluntly, saying "that Tim Michels is blowing it right before our eyes."

"This is a dangerous time for those of us who don't want four more years of Tony Evers," Conley said. "The polling suggests the race is close. One campaign is being aggressive. The other is strangely silent." The Michels campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

An added problem for Michels is that the bruising primary divided Republican loyalties in Wisconsin. While he had Trump's backing, Kleefisch was backed by the state's GOP establishment-embodied by former Gov. Scott Walker, a close ally-and her supporters have not withheld their snark on social media as Michels struggles in the general election.

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Evers was once thought to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors on the ballot this fall. Republicans and Democrats say he is in far better shape to weather 2022 than ever thought before. No major independent poll of the race so far has seen Michels leading, though Evers' leads are still within the margin of error in several polls.

"The degree to which Tony Evers has defied political gravity is astonishing," said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin Democratic strategist. But he stressed that Wisconsin's competitive nature will keep this a close race until the end. "Wisconsin is a 50-50 state where every election is a jump ball."

Minnesota was always more of a reach for Republicans than its neighbors. The party has not won a statewide election since 2006, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty won a second term. But operatives in both parties believe the state's record is deceiving: Trump nearly won the state in 2016 after visiting just once, and Republicans feel increasingly bullish about their chances there.

2022 might have been a golden opportunity for the GOP to break their cold streak: Walz is considered a formidable opponent, but his approval rating has hovered just above 50 percent. But Republicans are already admitting that Scott Jensen, their nominee, will likely be the latest GOP candidate to fall short on the statewide ballot.

A Minnesota GOP operative, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, predicted Jensen-who is just getting on TV airwaves after ceding them to Democrats all summer-would lose by 6 to 8 points. (Walz has dominated most recent polls, with one from local station KSTP showing him up by 18 points.)

There's also exasperation in the Republican ranks about Jensen's lieutenant governor pick, Matt Birk. A flashy and combative former Minnesota Vikings center, Birk has raised eyebrows for the unusually prominent role that he's played on the ticket: Birk continues to have his own campaign website, campaign literature, and yard signs.

At the same time, with less than eight weeks to go before Election Day, Birk traveled to suburban Baltimore to give a speech to an insurance industry networking event, according to a tweet from Michael Brodkorb, a former GOP operative in Minnesota. The Jensen campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Birk's activity or on the campaign in general.

With these campaigns running out of time to correct course, Heye, the GOP strategist, noted that "there was a lot of overconfidence and curtain-measuring happening six months ago" in the GOP when the polling outlook for Democrats was grim.

Now, these campaigns cannot count on the national political environment to bail them out. "When you typically realize you have a problem," Heye said, "it's too late."

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