The Republican candidates for governor of Wisconsin all wanted the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. But in a debate on Monday night, none of them would pledge to support him.
Their comments offered a snapshot of political time for Republicans in Wisconsin, where former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Construction Manager Tim Michels and State Rep. Tim Ramthun are all seeking GOP governor nominations. . Trump’s endorsement of Michels could tip the scales in the 2022 gubernatorial primary, but even Michels would not pledge to back Trump if he ran for president again in 2024.
“2024?” Michels said when asked about Trump. “I’m focused on this election right now.”
The candidates were asked about Trump in a debate hosted by WISN-TV. The question came from Hartford’s Dave Meixelsperger, a studio audience voter identified by moderators as a Trump-concerned Republican. Meixelsperger’s question referred to the violent insurrection on the US Capitol following Trump’s 2020 defeat.
“I would like to know if you are lucky enough to be elected governor of the great state of Wisconsin if you will support Donald Trump in 2024,” Meixelsperger asked. “Even after the events that took place on January 6, 2021.”
Michels, who has skyrocketed in the polls since Trump endorsed him on June 2, declined to endorse Trump.
“I have made no commitments to any candidate in 2024,” Michels said. “What I’m focused on is beating (Democratic Governor) Tony Evers.”
Kleefisch, who like Michels personally visited Trump to solicit his support, also kept his options open for 2024.
“As for 2024, I can assure you that I will support the Republican nominee,” Kleefisch said. “And it looks like we have an assortment to choose from.”
Ramthun, who wholeheartedly welcomed Trump’s pleas to try to reverse his 2020 defeat, also refused to back Trump.
“Whether there are three, 13 or 33 presidential candidates in 2024…he’s going to have to throw his hat in the ring,” Ramthun said. “And to be honest with you, I don’t know exactly where the nation is right now in terms of whether they would vote for him again or not.”
When moderators asked the contestants if they thought Trump had done anything wrong on Jan. 6, 2021, none of them blamed Trump for the events.
“He had a rally, and I think there were 60,000 people there,” Michels said. “I haven’t seen any evidence that Donald Trump said go to the Capitol now and storm it. I don’t think he would have done that.”
Michels said the hearings held by the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol were led by “a whole bunch of Democrats and…two liberal Republicans” to make Trump look bad.
“I don’t think he did anything wrong,” Michels said.
Kleefisch said she condemned the violence at the US Capitol.
“But I’ll tell you, I believe human beings are responsible for their own actions,” Kleefisch said. “And so, ultimately, these people who stormed the Capitol are responsible for what they did.”
Ramthun referred to “court-like oversight” regarding Jan. 6, but said he “won’t speculate on anything further.”
Republicans were also asked if they would sign legislation that would attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, a step that election law experts — including the Legislative Assembly’s own nonpartisan lawyers — have said is impossible. Only Kleefisch said she wouldn’t.
“It’s not constitutionally possible,” Kleefisch said. “You talk to any constitutional lawyer and you look at our Constitution and our statute and you will see that there is no way to decertify an election that has already taken place.”
Michels, who said in a previous GOP debate about a week ago that decertification would not be a priority as governor, indicated Monday that he would consider it.
“Everything will be on the table,” Michels said. “I will make the right decision.”
Ramthun, who drafted a resolution calling for decertification, said he still supports it.
“I would sign legislation the nanosecond it lands on my desk,” Ramthun said.
The candidates’ comments come days before Trump is due to hold a rally for Michels in Waukesha and about a week before Wisconsin’s Aug. 9 primary.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Executive Director Devin Remiker released a written statement after Monday’s debate. Republican voters would have a clear choice in November between one of the Republicans and Evers.
“Regardless of who emerges as the nominee, tonight’s town hall has made it clear that every Republican gubernatorial candidate is radical and bad for Wisconsin,” Remiker said.