Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels made their case to Wisconsinites Friday night in the first and only debate of Wisconsin’s 2022 gubernatorial race.
The debate, hosted by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in Madison, came as both candidates remain locked in a virtual tie.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday found Evers with 47% support and Michels with 46% among likely voters. Evers’ lead is narrower than in the last Marquette poll in mid-September when he garnered 47% to Michels’ 44%.
With three weeks until election day, both candidates made their cases directly to Wisconsinites, portraying themselves as leaders who would deliver for Wisconsin and painting their opponents as extreme on a range of issues from reproductive rights to crime and the climate crisis.
Cost of living
Though down from its peak over the summer, inflation remains a crucial concern for Wisconsinites, with the average family forced to pay hundreds of dollars more for necessities like rent, gas and food than a year ago. Wisconsin voters identified inflation as their top concern by a large margin, with over 70% of registered voters saying they were “very concerned” in the Marquette poll.
Evers said he would reduce taxes on the middle class by 10% and get rid of the minimum markup law on gas, which he said would save people up to 30 cents per gallon. He also offered parents child care credits from the state's surplus funds.
Michels touted his experience as a businessman who “understands macroeconomics” and said he would take bold action to address inflation without diving into specifics.
“We’re going to do massive tax reform [and] get more money in people's pockets here in Wisconsin,” Michels said, without explaining what the tax reform would look like.
Michels blamed an unproductive economy as one of the reasons for rising prices. He vowed to get people “off their couches” and said pandemic stimulus checks “created a class of lazy people.”
"I'm still trying to battle the issue of 'lazy Wisconsinites' when we have so few people unemployed in the state of Wisconsin," Evers said.
The candidates also disagreed on the cause of inflation. Michels blamed the Biden presidency and Evers administration for rising prices while Evers called inflation a “worldwide phenomenon.”
Abortion was one of the most contentious issues between the candidates, with each casting the other's stance as “radical.”
Michels, who called himself pro-life, excoriated Evers for allowing abortions as late as the time of birth and vetoing “Born Alive” bills, which would have imposed criminal penalties on doctors who failed to give medical care in the incredibly rare instance where an infant is born alive following an abortion attempt.
Evers said he vetoed the bill because such protections are already guaranteed under federal law.
Michels also promised to “listen to the people” and sign a bill containing exceptions for rape and incest, which does not currently exist in Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. Michels’ stance is a reversal from nearly two decades of public support for abortion bans without exceptions.
Wisconsin voters opposed the U.S. Supreme Court decision from June that overturned federal abortion rights by a sizable majority of 63% to 30%, according to the latest Marquette poll. The court's decision made the procedure virtually illegal in Wisconsin, leading state Democrats to mobilize anger over the decision in their midterm campaigns.
When pressed on his position for the mail-order abortion pills and the legality of crossing state lines for abortions, Michels called himself a “reasonable guy” and said that was something “we’ll have to sit down and work out.”
Evers pushed back against Michels, characterizing his views as extreme and out-of-touch with Wisconsinites.
“The bottom line here is women should have the ability and the right to make decisions about their health care, including reproductive health,” Evers said. “Those positions taken by my opponent here are radical. They're not consistent with Wisconsin values.”
Evers has positioned himself as a bulwark between the Republican-controlled Legislature and further abortion restrictions. He promised to continue vetoing bills that take away a woman's right to choose and his administration has vowed not to prosecute individuals for seeking the procedure.
Evers called the Legislature into a special session on Oct. 4 to consider a proposal for a direct statewide referendum on Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. However, Republicans shut down the special session in under 30 seconds with no debate.
Crime and public safety
Michels made crime and public safety central points of his campaign, drawing comparisons between himself and the Evers administration he portrayed as weak on crime. He claimed Evers provided “weak leadership” when responding to protests during the summer of 2020, including those following the August shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
Michels claimed crime was “running rampant” and experiencing a “tremendous spike” because of the “Defund the Police” movement, which he called “crazy.” Touting his endorsements from police associations, Michels said they had told him directly they didn’t feel Evers had their back.
“I'm gonna stand with law enforcement,” Michels said. “I'm going to let [the bad guys] know that there's a new sheriff in town.”
The events in Kenosha became a focal point between the candidates in particular, with Michels arguing that local forces and county leaders didn’t receive the leadership they needed while Evers asserted he did “everything that was asked of [him].”
Evers said providing the right training to police was critical and tied the need for funding to the necessity of shared revenue.
“Shared revenue is such an important thing,” Evers said. “If we want our municipalities to do the hard work, they deserve to have the money.”
The governor said his plan to combat gun violence involved sharing more state revenue with local governments. Evers further stated he supports universal background checks and “red flag” laws, which Michels and much of the GOP-dominated legislature said are a “slippery slope.”
“Responsible gun owners don’t have to worry about red flag laws because it will never be an issue for them,” Evers said, underscoring that these laws abide by “due process.”
The governor cited favorable polls for such laws, emphasizing a majority of Wisconsinites support these measures.
When asked about how gun ownership may be related to the rising rates of violence in Milwaukee, Michels touted the time he has spent in the city, arguing many homicides result from knife violence and that improving education is key to curbing crime.
“With the millions of guns in Wisconsin, we need to make sure that the responsible gun owners are not going to be subject to having their guns taken away without due process,” Michels said, vowing to “protect [Wisconsinites’] Second Amendment rights.”
Michels also criticized Evers for the Wisconsin Parole Commission’s 895 granted paroles under his administration. Evers clarified that the governor’s office has no authority over parole decisions and the Commission makes releases independently, stressing they “also have all sorts of [other] issues in the criminal justice system.”
The integrity of the 2020 election was another point of contention between the candidates. Michels has espoused falsehoods such as claiming the 2020 election was rigged and has previously refused to confirm whether he would certify the 2024 election, saying the question was too “hypothetical.”
Michels said during Friday’s debate that he would certify any elections after he became governor but stressed Wisconsin needed to review its election security. He cited a “nonpartisan commission” that found substantial fraud in the 2020 election but didn’t specify beyond that.
Multiple reviews of the 2020 election in Wisconsin have found no evidence of electoral fraud, and a year-long investigation sponsored by state Republicans also yielded no evidence of fraud.
Despite this, Michels vowed to make sure “no one” had questions about Wisconsin’s election integrity.
“I will make sure that once I’m governor, we never have these questions again about election integrity,” Michels said. “I will work with the Legislature. We will get these bills right — the bills that Governor Evers vetoed.”
Michels said he would outlaw “ballot harvesting” — the practice of allowing another person to hand in a voter’s absentee ballot — and highlighted a judge’s ruling this fall that led the Wisconsin Elections Commission to withdraw its guidance to clerks to fill in missing information on absentee ballot witness certificates.
Evers criticized Michels for spreading falsehoods and pointed to lies from prominent politicians as the only reason people were concerned about the election. Calling the last election safe, secure and without fraud, Evers maintained that it's the job of the governor to certify the results, no matter who wins.
“Certification is something that the governor does,” Evers said. “When my opponent says, ‘Well, I'm not sure if the legislature sends me something that says that Biden lost and Trump won. I don't know if I have to sign that’ - well you have to.”
Evers vetoed a series of bills this year that would have imposed tighter restrictions on mail-in voting and new citizenship verification, banned the use of private election grants and shifted election oversight to the legislature.
“Voting rights are on this ballot,” Evers concluded. “It is radical to say ‘I'm not sure how this works out or that fraud happened when it didn't happen.”
Education was another key area of disagreement during the debate, with Michels calling for more parent involvement in education and Gov. Evers advocating for more funding for public schools.
Michels took aim at Evers for declining test scores in Wisconsin, saying the situation “[couldn’t] get any worse.” He called for universal school choice — a policy that would allow students to choose public or private schools outside of their district that would be funded by the state — and vowed to give parents more control over educating their children.
“It will get better because we’re going to empower parents,” Michels said. “Those tuition dollars are going to go with the parents of the sons and daughters.”
Evers, a former state Superintendent of Public Instruction, outlined his plan for nearly $2 billion in funding for Wisconsin public schools. The plan would draw money from the state’s approximately $4.3 billion budget surplus to fund mental health resources, improve literacy outcomes and alleviate teaching shortages. Evers said property taxes would not be raised.
Evers criticized Michels’ education plan as out of step with what Wisconsin families want.
“[Michels’] plan right now is to take 40% of the funding away from our public schools,” Evers said. “That is called defunding our public schools. Those are radical, radical positions. They are not what the people of Wisconsin [want].”
The candidates also differed strongly on how the history of racism should be taught in schools. Michels fell back on Republican talking points, declaring “we’re going to stop the CRT [Critical Race Theory] and get back to the ABCs” — arguing the content of public education should be left to the parents as opposed to “woke technocrats.”
Evers clapped back at Michels’ quip, stating critical race theory — a university-level concept — is not taught anywhere in K-12 schools. He asserted that if America’s history of racism couldn’t be openly discussed as part of a normal curriculum, “we’re in a sad shape.”
Other topics covered in the debate were Wisconsin’s worker shortage, the status of undocumented immigrants and candidates’ potential conflicts of interest if elected. Michels, the founder of the construction company Michels Corporation, pledged to completely divest from his company if elected and dismissed allegations of sexual harrassment at the company.
Healthcare and climate change were also discussed, as well as the candidates’ proposals to deal with PFAS and other chemicals in Wisconsin's water system.
Former President Barack Obama will hold a rally for Evers and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee on Oct. 29. Wisconsin’s midterm elections will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.