Wisconsin Gov. Evers defeats foe he called democracy threat

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers has defeated Republican Tim Michels to keep battleground Wisconsin under Democratic control heading into the 2024 presidential election.

Evers had argued that democracy was on the ballot with Michels, who was endorsed by Donald Trump and who cast doubt on Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential win in Wisconsin. Michels favored disbanding the state’s bipartisan elections commission and had promised to sign bills vetoed by Evers that would make it harder to vote absentee.

Evers. in his victory speech early Wednesday, told his supporters he was “jazzed as hell” by the outcome of the race. “Holy mackerel folks, how about that?” he said.

Evers also noted that he is frequently described as boring, but said: “As it turns out, boring wins.”

Michels is a construction company co-owner who was backed by former President Donald Trump. He campaigned as a political outsider and wanted to do away with the state’s bipartisan elections commission.

The race was the most expensive in state history and a key one for Democrats ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Evers had hoped his his support for abortion rights and his status as the only check on the GOP in a state certain to be pivotal in the 2024 presidential race would put him over the top.

Michels promised to deliver “massive” tax cuts and largely financed his campaign from his fortune as owner of the state's largest construction firm.

Wisconsin voters are sharply divided over Evers’ job performance, with roughly half saying they approve and an equal proportion disapproving. according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,200 voters in the state.

About a third of voters said they strongly disapprove of the governor, while about a quarter strongly approve.

But among voters who said they supported their candidate enthusiastically, roughly 6 in 10 backed Evers, while about 4 in 10 expressed the same level of support for Michels.

Roughly half of Wisconsin voters say the economy is the most pressing issue facing the country.

Evers frequently touted the more than 120 vetoes he issued to block Republican legislation in his first term, including bills that would have broadened gun rights, made it harder to get an abortion and tougher to cast absentee ballots.

Evers’ victory stood to guarantee that Democrats would still have a check on Republican power in the Legislature, as GOP attempts of winning enough seats to have a veto-proof supermajority looked doubtful.

Michels, who won a tough primary after getting Trump's endorsement, initially refused to commit to accepting the results of the election before saying in late October he would “certainly” accept the outcome. Michels also has said “maybe” the 2020 election lost by Trump was stolen, even though President Joe Biden's win has survived numerous lawsuits, reviews and recounts.

Michels also supports Republican proposals to disband the state’s bipartisan elections commission and to make it harder to vote.

He tried to make the race largely about the economy, education, crime and public safety, arguing that Evers allowed too many prison inmates to be paroled and failed to act decisively to quell violent protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha in 2020.

Michels also faulted Evers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that schools and businesses were shuttered too long and that Evers has failed to improve educational results. Michels supports making everyone eligible to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers, a program that Evers, the former state schools chief, opposes. Michels also wants to cut income taxes to a nearly flat rate of around 5%.

Michels, in their lone debate, said all Evers “wants to do is blame others and talk about more resources, more money." He added: “I’m a leader that will take responsibility. I’m a man of integrity.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Evers tried to make the race a referendum on abortion. Michels supported the state’s 1849 abortion ban in the Republican primary, but after his win he changed positions and said he would sign a bill creating exceptions for rape and incest. Evers said he would not sign such a bill if it left the underlying ban in place.

Al Drifka, 65, a retired manufacturing executive voting in the northern Milwaukee suburb of Cedarburg, split his ticket in the state's top two races — voting for GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in that race but going for Evers as governor.

“I think the state of Wisconsin is in a good position right now,” Drifka said. “And I didn't hear a lot of substance from Michels on what he was actually going to do.”

Vasyl Ovod, 41, a construction worker who described himself as conservative, voted for Michels at the same polling place. Ovod said he emigrated from Ukraine 17 years ago and things have gotten harder.

“When we came, it was much different,” he said. “I could even make more money. Gas was low. Now I feel like everything is going wrong. You feel this, you know?”

Evers won in 2018 by a little more than a percentage point, and history was not on his side for a second term. He was trying to become the first Wisconsin governor in 32 years who was the same party as the sitting president to win reelection in a midterm.

Michels, 59, co-owns Michels Corporation with his brothers and claimed that he is “not a politician.” He previously ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, losing to then-Sen. Russ Feingold.

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Scott Bauer, The Associated Press