• Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

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Wisconsin’s primaries are the latest test of Trump’s push to install battleground allies

WAUKESHA, Wis.Polls have closed in Wisconsin, where Republican primaries Tuesday will provide the latest measure of former President Donald Trump’s influence and grievance as he dwells on — and continues to lie about — his loss in the 2020 election while considering another White House bid in 2024. 

In the battle to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in the general election, Trump-backed businessman Tim Michels is leading over Rebecca Kleefisch, the state’s former lieutenant governor, NBC News projects, though the race is too early to call. A third Republican candidate, state Rep. Tim Ramthun, has trailed in polls. 

Evers was renominated without opposition.

Michels supporters — gathered inside a small catering hall in Waukesha, a Republican stronghold whose voters are key in the primary race — sipped drinks and munched on sliders and other sandwiches as they waited for results.

The final days of the race indicated a close fight to the finish, with neither Kleefisch’s deep reservoir of establishment support nor Michels’ Trump endorsement pointing to a decisive victory. Michels has treaded cautiously in recent weeks, sending mixed messages about how much he is willing to abide Trump’s pressure to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin. He and Kleefisch have both echoed Trump’s debunked claims of voter fraud in the state.

Kleefisch’s list of endorsers includes Scott Walker, the former governor she served with, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s involvement has triggered another GOP proxy war between Trump and his former No. 2, who resisted pressure to block certification of the 2020 election and is believed to be laying the groundwork for his own 2024 presidential bid.

“If we don’t unite after this primary, we won’t be able to win and beat Evers,” Republican strategist Bill McCoshen, who isn’t affiliated with either candidate, told NBC News this week. “He may be considered vulnerable, but he’s also a likable guy who has good favorable ratings.”

Wisconsin’s race for governor is expected to be one of the toughest this fall, with Democrats fighting to hold on to power in Midwest swing states that were key to Biden’s win. Trump has prioritized installing election-denying loyalists in governor’s mansions and other state offices. The candidates Trump endorsed for governor in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania — top battlegrounds narrowly won by Biden in 2020 — have advanced to the general election. His efforts to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who refused to overturn the state’s election results, failed in a primary this year.

Some Kleefisch voters who spoke with NBC News in recent days said they were impressed with the work she and Walker did together. Others echoed her concerns that Michels, who owns a home in Connecticut and lives part of the year there, hadn’t been fully engaged in the crises Wisconsin has dealt with in recent years.

Bill Means, a retired school administrator from Pleasant Prairie, called Michels a “Johnny-come-lately with lots of money” and a “partial-year resident.”

Michels voters, on the other hand, consistently said they were drawn to his experience as an “outsider” businessman who, until this race, had largely stayed out of politics — though a few said Trump’s endorsement made a difference in their decision to support him.

“I found him refreshing,” said Carol Smith, a retired counselor from Oconomowoc. “I think either of them would represent Wisconsin well but I just like that he’s an outsider.”

The Wisconsin primaries also feature a Trump revenge mission against state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has refused to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. Trump last week endorsed Vos’ primary rival Adam Steen.

There is less suspense, meanwhile, in the Senate races. Democrats in recent weeks cleared the field for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who will face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally, in another key matchup this fall. Both have won primaries in which they faced marginal opposition, NBC News projects.

Image: Democratic Senate Candidate Mandela Barnes Campaigns In Milwaukee
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes at a campaign event Monday in Milwaukee.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Connecticut, Minnesota and Vermont also are holding primaries Tuesday.

In Connecticut, Trump-endorsed Leora Levy had won the GOP Senate primary, NBC News projects. She goes on to face Democratic incumbent Richard Blumenthal in the heavily Democratic state.

In Vermont’s at-large congressional district, Democratic state Sen. Becca Balint will face Republican Liam Madden, NBC News projects. Balint, the Vermont Senate’s first openly gay president pro tempore, is heavily favored make history this fall — Vermont is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.

The House seat is open because Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, is seeking the seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat. Welch won the Democratic Senate primary Tuesday, NBC News projects. Former U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan and Army veteran Gerald Malloy are among the Republicans competing for their party’s nomination.

In Minnesota, which has leaned Democratic in recent years but can be competitive, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz will face Republican Scott Jensen, a physician and former state senator, NBC News projects. Republicans also nominated Jim Schultz, a political newcomer, to face Attorney General Keith Ellison this fall.

Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District also is hosting a special election Tuesday to fill the remaining months of Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term. Hagedorn, a Republican, died in February. Republican Brad Finstad, a former state legislator and U.S. Agriculture Department official, is running against Democrat Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel Foods. 

In a twist, Finstad and Ettinger also won primaries Tuesday to set up a November general election for a full two-year term to represent a redrawn 1st District that takes effect next year.

Henry J. Gomez reported from Cleveland, Ohio, and Adam Edelman from Adam Edelman reported from Waukesha, Wisconsin.

CORRECTION (Aug. 9, 2022, 7:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a candidate for governor of Wisconsin. He is Tim Ramthun, not Rathmun.