Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin and his Republican challenger, Tim Michels, clashed in a debate Friday night over the swing state’s election administration, as Michels vowed to sign a series of restrictive ballot measures vetoed by the incumbent.
The stylistic differences between the two nominees were on display in Madison in their first and only debate.
Demonstrating his technocratic approach, Evers delved into detailed proposals to issue childcare tax credits, share state revenue with local governments, eliminate the “minimum price” law that requires gas stations to charge at least 9% more than what they charge for gas, and cut state income taxes on middle-class incomes by 10%.
Michels was much shorter on specifics, promising “massive tax reform” without providing specifics. Instead, he sought to portray Evers as a weak leader.
“I’m a businessman. I understand macroeconomics. I understand how to read a balance sheet,” Michels said.
The outcome of Wisconsin’s race for governor could have significant implications for the 2024 presidential election — a contest in which Wisconsin could reprise its role as a marquee swing state.
Here are six takeaways from Friday’s gubernatorial debate in the Badger State:
Evers defended the integrity of Wisconsin’s election, saying Republicans claimed massive fraud in the 2020 presidential election “without having any idea or any details.”
“It was safe, fair and we can have confidence in our choice,” Evers said.
The Democratic governor this year vetoed a series of bills approved by the GOP-led Legislature that would have imposed new requirements for mail-in voting and confirmation of new citizenship; required the state to disable more voter registrations; prohibited the use of subsidies for private elections; and moved election monitoring to the legislature.
Michels mentioned “Zucker bucks,” a reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donating $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to help election officials and voters safely navigate the coronavirus pandemic. He also said he would ban “ballot harvesting,” the practice of allowing another person to drop off a voter’s absentee ballot.
And he highlighted a judge’s ruling in the fall that prompted the Wisconsin Elections Commission to withdraw its guidance to clerks to fill in missing information on absentee ballot affidavits.
“I’m going to make sure that once I’m governor, we never have these election integrity issues again. I’m going to work with the Legislature. We’re going to get these bills right — the bills that Governor Evers vetoed,” Michels said.
Evers and Michels both said they would certify the next Wisconsin election that takes place while they are governor.
Evers said he would certify the outcome of the gubernatorial election “regardless of who wins.”
“Of course I will certify the next election,” Michels said.
But Michels said the state also needs to address concerns about election security. The Republican has previously embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. While he did not promote those claims Friday, he also did not acknowledge that election security concerns exist as a result of Trump’s lies.
“I want to make sure after I’m governor that we’re not having these conversations two years, four years from now,” Michels said.
Michels said Friday that he is “pro-life” but would sign legislation allowing rape and incest exemptions from the state’s 1849 abortion ban, which was allowed to take effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature has yet to advance a measure to allow such exemptions.
The Republican also said he is “not against birth control” and played down the possibility of enforcing criminal penalties against those who seek abortions in other states.
“I’m a reasonable guy and I’ve listened to the people and I’ll always listen to the people,” Michels said.
Evers has pushed state GOP lawmakers to support amending state law to allow a referendum on Prohibition in 1849. He recently called lawmakers into a special session and urged them to allow citizens to propose such a referendum, but the GOP-led the assembly and senate both adjourned in less than 30 seconds without taking action.
Evers on Friday described Michels as “radical” on the issue and said Wisconsin should return to the abortion rights protections that existed before Dobb’s ruling.
“The bottom line here is this: Women should have the ability and the right to make decisions about their health care, including reproductive health care, and that includes abortion,” Evers said.
Evers and Michels also clashed over gun restrictions, with the governor saying he supports universal background checks and “red flag” laws, and Michels responding that such laws were unconstitutional.
Asked about violent crime in Milwaukee, Michels touted his time in the city, saying many homicides were the result of knife violence rather than guns. He said he sees the red flag laws as a “slippery slope.”
“With the millions of guns in Wisconsin, we need to ensure that the responsible gun owners will not face having their guns taken away without due process,” he said.
Evers said his plan to combat gun violence includes sharing state revenue with local governments. He also championed red flag laws and universal background checks, two gun restrictions that currently have no way forward in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“Responsible gun owners don’t have to worry about red flag laws because that will never be a problem for them,” Evers said.
Michels hammered Evers over the Wisconsin Parole Commission’s decisions to grant hundreds of discretionary paroles that are not required by law.
These paroles have been routine in the past, but Wisconsin Republicans have blamed Democrats for the increase in violent crime. The state saw a 70% increase in homicides from 2019 to 2021 — a trend that occurred nationwide and that experts say was driven by the coronavirus pandemic and economic factors.
The paroles, Michels said, showed Evers was following through on his 2018 campaign promise to cut the state’s prison population in half.
“They released over 1,000 convicted felons. They have about 10,000 more left if you do the simple math,” Michels said. “I’m going to elect a parole chief to make sure we have the rule of law in Wisconsin.”
Evers, meanwhile, pointed out that the parole commission is not controlled by the governor, although the governor appoints its chairman. Commission Chairman John Tate resigned under criticism in June, which Evers noted was at his urging.
“This is about shared income. We can talk about parole, but we also have all kinds of problems in the criminal justice system,” Evers said.
Michels shot back: “You’ve heard, more money, more resources, more resources, and that doesn’t mean anything about management. … I want to be tough and I want to talk tough.”
Evers and Michels also sparred on education, an issue Michels supports that public funds can follow students to private schools, while Evers wants more funding for public schools.
“You would think that the education will go well under his leadership, but it is not. Something has to change,” Michels said of Evers, who was the former top education official in the state before becoming governor.
He added, “It can’t get worse. It’s going to get better because we’re going to empower the parents, those tuition dollars are going to go with the parents to the sons and daughters. … And we’re going to end the CRT and go back to the ABCs, ” Michels said, referring to critical race theory, a concept that has become politicized in recent years.
Evers replied, “CRTs are not taught in our schools. And the ABCs are.”