Former President Trump will hold a rally in Wisconsin later Friday to boost his endorsed candidates, a visit that comes as the Republican Party faces challenges in the battleground state.
Trump will stump for his preferred gubernatorial candidate, Tim Michels (R), not long after former Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit to the Badger State to support former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R) in yet another example of the ongoing proxy battle between the pair.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Johnson (R), a high-profile Trump ally, will be noticeably absent. The senator said in a statement last month he was forgoing the rally because he didn’t want to weigh in on a contested primary.
The timing of the rally also comes as Johnson faces a competitive Senate reelection bid, most likely against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D).
Republicans remain optimistic these races will go their way in November, though some acknowledge hurdles the party faces ahead of its primary next week — particularly with Trump and Pence again on opposite sides.
GOP strategist Bill McCoshen said there’s “some nervousness now about how negative the gubernatorial primary has gotten.”
“There’s five days left to go, and folks are getting concerned about whether we’ll be able to put the party back together next Wednesday,” he said.
Several people that spoke to The Hill said that it was the first time they had seen a former president and former vice president endorsing opposing candidates in a primary in Wisconsin.
A GOP operative with ties to the state didn’t seem convinced that the differing endorsements signaled a divergence in the Republican Party, however.
“I don’t know if I would attribute the Trump-Pence thing to a divergence in the party. I think the divergence in the party would be Pence and Trump on one side, and then, you know, you got, your … [Rep. Adam] Kinzingers on the other side,” the operative said.
GOP strategist Mark Graul believed that the endorsements didn’t raise questions about the direction of the party, saying that the candidates have been focused on touting their own personal records.
“It’s really much more about that for most Wisconsinites, than this is about a, you know, are-you-with-Trump-or-are-you-with-Pence kind of situation here,” he said.
But some experts believe otherwise.
“I think it does, especially on the question of whether the 2020 election was legitimate or not,” said Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of the school’s Elections Research Center, when asked if the different endorsements raised questions about the direction of the party.
“That is Trump’s hobbyhorse. It seems to be how he is selecting the kinds of people he wants to endorse,” he said. “Rebecca Kleefisch did not initially make statements that were skeptical enough about the 2020 election for Trump’s tastes, and so he went with someone else. It ended up being Michels.”
Christina Amestoy, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, said the endorsements of Pence and Trump represented the same Republican Party, but she said the different endorsements spoke “to the disarray and the division that we’re seeing” within the GOP.
Still, Trump has drawn his own line in the sand among Republicans whom he believes have been sympathetic to his false views that the 2020 election was stolen, and those who have become critics of his or refused to engage in efforts to overturn the election.
Earlier this week, Trump endorsed candidate Adam Steen to take on Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) in the 63rd Assembly District race, calling Steen a “rising patriotic candidate” while slamming Vos as a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only,” after Vos resisted attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Some Republicans suggested that Trump’s endorsement of Steen was misguided.
“I think what it says is that, you know, former President Trump, in all due respect, doesn’t understand what’s been happening in Wisconsin the last 12 years or so,” Graul said.
“I mean, Speaker Vos has been integral, first to helping pass the conservative reforms that passed under Governor [Scott] Walker, you know, everything from the collective bargaining reforms to mapping, you know, huge tax cuts, things of that nature.”
Brandon Scholz, a retired Republican strategist, called it “laughable.”
“Robin Vos has done more for Republicans as Speaker and in his career in a legislature than a lot of people have. And Vos put a lot of legislation through. The notion that, you know, Trump name-calling him is just laughable. I mean, it’s one of those things like … it’s just a totally ignorant observation of politics in Wisconsin,” he said.
Steen pushed back on Republicans’ assessment of Trump’s endorsement.
“So I believe they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about,” he told The Hill when asked about Republican disagreements with Trump’s endorsement of him.
“So my opponent, as I’ve said multiple times, is not as conservative, but he’s not following the party platform either. The party platform is very clear on life. It’s very clear on the Constitution. And he is simply ignoring what the Constitution says, and I believe it’s time for conservatives to actually stand up and follow the Constitution and tell the left that they have to sue us if they want to break the Constitution,” he added.
Some believe Vos will prevail, but Trump’s endorsement still sends a signal that the former president is unafraid of going after what he considers are political opponents of his.
Meanwhile, Johnson himself is gearing up for one of the competitive Senate races this November, which Cook Political Report rates as a toss-up.
Polling in June by the Marquette Law School suggested Johnson was in for a tight race against several challengers, including Barnes. The poll, conducted between June 14 and June 20, showed Barnes receiving 46 percent in a hypothetical matchup with Johnson compared to the senator’s 44 percent, numbers that were within the margin of error.
“Ron Johnson’s not a politician, and that’s something that voters in Wisconsin really appreciate, is he’s somebody that is going to give it to them straight and he’s not going to play political games. Mandela Barnes has been a career political activist,” Ben Voelkel, a campaign spokesperson for Johnson, said of the senator.
A spokesperson for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm claimed Barnes “hasn’t done much to kind of help the struggles that … families are faced with” and said Johnson “has proven himself in Washington as someone who always fights for the state.”
But Johnson has been embroiled in several controversies, including being name-checked by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot over his office’s alleged involvement in a fake elector scheme.
Johnson, who has denied any wrongdoing, said during an interview in June that Rep. Mike Kelly’s (R-Pa.) office was the original source for an alternative slate of electors to be delivered to Pence. Kelly has denied any personal involvement.
More recently Johnson suggested that Medicare and Social Security should be annually approved, drawing the ire of Democrats who believed Johnson wanted those programs cut.
“My chief of staff contacted the vice president’s staff and said, ‘Do you want this?’ They said ‘no’ and we didn’t deliver it, and that’s the end of story,” Johnson told reporters following the committee revelations.
A Democratic source familiar with Senate races called Johnson’s comments about Medicare and Social Security “deeply out of touch and out of step with the entirety of the state.”
“Wisconsinites are going to face a clear choice in this election between Mandela Barnes … a product of a working family, has stood up for working Wisconsinites his whole life, fought to help and provide for all Wisconsinites sign, no matter where they live, no matter what zip code. Versus Ron Johnson, who has gone to D.C.,” the source said. “He’s changed, he’s now out of touch.”
Graul argued that voters were more concerned about the economy and inflation than the Jan. 6 committee investigation and claimed Johnson’s comments were speaking to fiscal challenges facing the country.
“You know, some of the positions he’s taken might be unsettling for Republicans,” Burden said. “Yet he is probably the most unifying Republican figure in the state. There’s really no one else that has such unanimous backing from Republican activists.”