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Race for governor

Dick Uihlein urges Kevin Nicholson to jump into race for governor

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Looking to build momentum in unseating Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, some Wisconsin conservatives — chief among them Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — had hoped Republicans would get solidly behind one candidate in the 2022 gubernatorial race.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is the apparent frontrunner for the GOP nomination. She already has raised millions and has been a popular face at speaking functions for more than a year, building up wide momentum before and into her actual campaign.

The likes of Vos have been hoping to avoid a knock-down, drag-out battle leading up to Aug. 9’s primary that could hurt the party’s chances in the final Nov. 8 vote.

But it’s possiblethat there will be some kind of battle, with many millions to be spent in it.

Campaign contributions show Kleefisch has the backing of billionaire Liz Uihlein. But Liz Uihlein’s husband, Dick Uihlein, is sticking behind his preferred candidate: Kevin Nicholson, even if Nicholson isn’t even an official candidate at this point.

Liz and Dick Uihlein are Republican megadonors who co-own Pleasant Prairie-based ULINE.

Nicholson, a combat veteran Marine who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, has tiptoed around deciding what major elected office he wants to run for. He indicated he was waiting for Ron Johnson to decide if he wanted to seek a third term in the U.S. Senate or not. Now that Johnson said he is going to seek a third term, backtracking on his previous campaign promise to be a two-term senator, Nicholson’s decision has become more complicated.

“If Kevin Nicholson is listening, you need to not run for governor,” Vos was quoted as saying during an event in Madison last week.

Then on Monday, Dick Uihlein issued a statement, pushing in the other direction.

“I strongly urge Kevin Nicholson to run for Governor of Wisconsin. There are very few people that can shake things up in the state; Kevin is one of them. He’s an outsider who bravely served as a Marine commander and has built a career in business while also galvanizing conservatives throughout the state through No Better Friend Corp.,” he said. “Kevin is a born leader. If he decides to run for Governor, he will have my full support and commitment to win the primary and general elections. I know he’s the fighter we need to get Wisconsin back on track.”

The Kleefisch campaign on Monday did not respond to a request for a comment on Dick Uihlein’s statement.

Would primary hurt GOP chances?

Avoiding a close race for the Republican nomination could increase the party’s chances of unseating Evers. If nothing else, more campaign dollars could be set aside for closer to the final Election Day, rather than having them burned in the primary before the final battle against Evers.

The primary could get even more intense if former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican popular even with some Democrats for his defense of COVID-19 prevention mandates during his tenure as interim UW System president, decides to run again.

Another Republican, small business owner and entrepreneur Jonathan Wichmann, has been making the rounds of the state as he seeks the governor’s office, but he hasn’t been able to raise enough to appear competitive in the statewide race. In the second half of 2021, he reported receiving donations totaling $42,000.

Former police officer and businessman Adam Fischer raised a little over $28,000 in the last six months of 2021 in his announced run as a Republican for Wisconsin governor. Independent candidate Joan Beglinger reported raising about $24,000 in the second half of last year, compared to about $850 raised by fellow independent Jess Hisel.

On the hot-button issues of the day, there’s little separating the likes of Wichmann, Kleefisch and Nicholson. They all have raised alarms about critical race theory, have joined those looking to tighten election laws in the wake of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory over Donald Trump, consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment and are all anti-abortion.

Evers, who has a significant fundraising lead on Kleefisch, is uncontested and thus will be able to save his money for closer to the big day, the general election on Nov. 8. Kleefisch earlier this month reported raising more than $3.3 million in the first four months of her campaign. Evers’ campaign reports having more than $10 million on hand.

Power of incumbency

Since 1948 and through 2013, incumbent U.S. governors seeking re-election win 72.08% of the time, and that percentage has steadily risen over the past century — from 63.5% in the 1960s to 79.91% in the 2000s — according to data analyzed by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Dating back to 1986 when Republican Tommy Thompson unseated incumbent Democrat Tony Earl, sitting Wisconsin governors have won re-election two-thirds of the time — including when Scott Walker staved off a recall in 2012.

In response to those seeking to keep the Republican primary uncontested, Meg Andrietsch Democratic Party of Racine County chair and secretary of the state Democratic Party, texted on Monday “I’d say that primaries are healthy, and allow for a robust discussion of issues. Trying to control the process of nominating a candidate hurts our democracy. Democrats have endorsed Gov. Tony Evers because we know where he stands, and that he has kept his campaign promises. We hope for and expect a fair race regardless of who the Republican nominee is or how they get chosen.”

Lee Newspapers Reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this article.

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