MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers learned long ago to lean into his lack of charisma, and he was at it again in an appearance before the Milwaukee Rotary in the final weeks of the race. “I’m not the flashiest guy in the room,” Evers said, pivoting quickly to portray Republican Tim Michels as the opposite — a “radical” and “dangerous” force who could be a threat to democracy.
“Mr. Michels supports policies that, frankly, I don’t believe the people in Wisconsin support,” Evers, a Democrat, told the group’s members.
Michels’ own closing argument dismisses such concerns as he promises voters progress on economic issues, safer streets and better schools.
“From my very first day in office to my very last day in office … I am always going to be about the Wisconsin economy and the hardworking people in this state,” Michels said at a rally in Waukesha, the heart of the conservative Milwaukee suburbs.
As Evers and Michels near the end of a race polls show as about even, the stakes couldn’t be higher in swing-state Wisconsin, one of the nation’s few remaining presidential battlegrounds. Whoever wins will be in office for the 2024 election, with the power to certify the results of that race — or reshape the state’s election machinery ahead of it.
Evers certified President Joe Biden’s win; Michels, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has said that “maybe” the 2020 election was stolen, giving credence to baseless claims of election fraud. Michels has also been unclear about whether he would accept 2024 results, wants to do away with the state’s bipartisan elections commission and has promised to sign a raft of bills Evers vetoed that would make it more difficult to vote absentee.
Democrats said Michels provided evidence of his intentions this week when he said at a campaign rally, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” Michels’ spokesperson Brian Fraley said Michels merely meant Republicans would be rewarded for doing a good job.
Evers, the low-key 70-year-old who spent his career in education before knocking off then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2018, is counting on voters liking his approach and wanting to keep him as a check on the Republican Legislature, which has increasingly swerved to the right. He’s already vetoed more bills than any governor in modern state history.
Evers’ style makes him a difficult candidate to defeat, said Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff under Trump and a former Wisconsin GOP state chairman.
“Milquetoast is tougher to beat,” Priebus said. “Sort of do-nothing people who don’t have personalities are tougher to beat.”
Evers is hoping Biden’s low approval ratings do not weigh him down. Evers is trying to become the first governor in 32 years to win reelection who is the same party as the sitting president.
The 60-year-old Michels, whose last run for office was for U.S. Senate in 2004, has cast himself throughout the race as a political outsider. He touts his time in the U.S. Army and his background helping to run a family construction business, Michels Corp., that employs more than 8,000 people and made him a multimillionaire.
More money has been spent on television ads by Republican and Democratic groups in Wisconsin’s governor’s race than any other in the country, according to AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending. Michels has largely self-financed his run, spending about $19 million through late October.
Evers has campaigned on his effort to “fix the damn roads,” improving access to rural broadband Internet services and signing a middle-class tax cut passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. He also reminded voters of near-record low unemployment throughout his term and federal COVID-19 relief money he’s passed along to small businesses and law enforcement.
He wants to send local governments and schools more money, plans that have been thwarted by the Republican-controlled Legislature in the past. Evers proposed sending voters a tax rebate earlier this year, spending down some of the state’s budget surplus, but Republicans blocked it.
Michels has spoken generally about “massive” tax reform, reducing crime, “reforming” education and “election integrity,” but is often short of details on what exactly he wants to do or how he plans to do it. He accuses Evers of failing to improve school performance, being soft on crime and not doing more to quell violent protests that erupted in Kenosha in 2020 after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Evers counters that he did all that was asked by local law enforcement.
Michels also faults Evers for not doing more to open the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evers says he was saving lives by following the recommendations of public health officials, doctors and scientists.
Michels has said he would sign all the Republican-backed bills that Evers vetoed, which includes measures expanding gun rights and cutting unemployment benefits. Michels wants to expand the taxpayer-funded private school voucher program, a move that former state schools chief Evers says would destroy public education, and says he’s open to breaking the Milwaukee school district into smaller ones.
Michels also said he’s open to lowering the state’s income tax to a nearly flat rate, a move that economists blasted as primarily benefiting the rich.
Michels has been at perhaps his most unclear when it comes to the one issue Evers hopes voters have on their minds when casting their ballots — abortion.
As he was straining to win his primary this summer, Michels repeatedly said the state’s 1849 near-total abortion ban was the “exact mirror” of his position. But he flipped in September, saying he would sign a bill with exceptions for rape and incest.
As political surrogates flood the state in the race’s closing days there have been two notable absences — Biden and Trump. Evers rarely talks about the president and Michels doesn’t mention Trump. Polls show both are unpopular in the state.
Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, and lost it in 2020, both times by a margin of less than a single point. Evers defeated Walker in 2018 by 29,227 votes — just a little more than 1 percentage point. A Marquette University Law School poll of 679 likely voters conducted Oct. 24 through Tuesday and released Wednesday showed the race between Evers and Michels to be a tie, with each candidate at 48%.
“It’s just gotten tighter and tighter and tighter,” pollster Charles Franklin said.
Evers, when encouraging Democrats to vote early, says he always expected it to be a close election.
Michels jokingly told his supporters last week that he expects a “Wisconsin landslide.”
“Before you get too excited … a Wisconsin landslide probably means we’re winning by two or three points,” he said.