Republican Kleefisch enters Wisconsin governor’s race

BUTLER, Wis. (AP) — Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch launched her campaign for governor on Thursday by likening herself to former President Donald Trump and deriding the Democratic incumbent as a weak failure.

The Republican told a couple hundred supporters at an envelope factory where her father used to work that if Trump could overcome the odds to win in 2016, “friends, we can do it. No more failed, incompetent and chaotic leadership.”

The race is a top priority for Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature but have been blocked by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. He’s vetoed Republican bills to make absentee voting more difficult, restricted access to abortions and prohibited enforcement of any future federal gun control laws.

Kleefisch promised to sign the election bills into law on her first day in office.

Under a Republican governor, Democrats would not have the votes to stop the GOP agenda heading into the 2024 presidential election in the battleground state President Joe Biden narrowly won.

Kleefisch took aim at Evers immediately, accused him of “siding with rioters” and not doing more to quell violence that erupted last summer in Kenosha after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by police. She also faulted Evers for closing schools early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not lay out any of her own plans for dealing with the increasing spread of the virus other than promising to keep schools open.

“He may shut down our schools, he may shut down our economy, he may shut down our churches but today we begin to shut down Tony Evers,” Kleefisch said.

Evers’ campaign spokesman Sam Roecker countered that Evers has taken “bold action to ... clean up the mess” that Kleefisch left behind during the Walker years.

“Because of Governor Evers’ steady leadership, Wisconsin is bouncing back stronger than before with a record surplus, low unemployment and $4 billion in tax relief delivered in his first term,” Roecker said.

Kleefisch promised to hire 1,000 more police officers, ban sanctuary cities, send the National Guard to secure the U.S. southern border, expand the private school choice program and keep elections safe and secure.

Kleefisch, 46, is trying to become the first female governor in Wisconsin history. She is the best-known Republican to officially get into the race against Evers, who is seeking a second term in 2022. State Rep. John Macco, of Green Bay, longtime lobbyist Bill McCoshen and 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, a former Marine, are also considering runs for governor as Republicans.

Kleefisch was born in Michigan and her family moved to Ohio where she won the Miss Ohio Teen USA title in 1994. She worked as a television reporter in Illinois and then in Milwaukee, where she met her future husband, former state Rep. Joel Kleefisch. He was also a reporter at the time.

Kleefisch’s first run for office was for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Kleefisch was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2010. Less than two weeks before winning the five-person lieutenant governor primary she had a tumor removed. She completed chemotherapy treatment during her first year in office.

“They literally cut out half my guts,” Kleefisch told supporters. “Even with half my guts, I still have twice as much guts as Tony Evers.”

Kleefisch served as Walker’s lieutenant governor his entire time in office, including the Act 10 union fight and the unsuccessful 2012 recall. She was also involved with bringing Foxconn to Wisconsin, a deal that fell well short of meeting estimates for jobs or economic development that Walker and the Taiwan-based company promised.

During the lieutenant governor campaign, Kleefisch said that there was “no consensus that people have caused climate change.” And she told a Christian radio program that extending domestic partner benefits to gay state employees could lead to approving marriage to dogs or furniture.

She later apologized for her “poor choice of words.”

During the 2018 campaign, Kleefisch apologized to Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes for repeatedly claiming — without evidence — that he knelt during the national anthem at the state fair.

After Evers defeated Walker in 2018, Kleefisch was appointed to serve as executive director of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. A year ago, Kleefisch formed a conservative policy group called the 1848 Project.

Last week, Kleefisch released 56 policy proposals which included a host of conservative priorities including banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

Political newcomers Jonathan Wichmann, Leonard Larson Jr., Adam Fischer and James Kellen have also filed paperwork to run as Republicans. The Republican primary is 11 months away on Aug. 9.

Covering Wisconsin politics and news