Wisconsin’s GOP gubernatorial primary tests Trump’s influence amid political fallout of FBI search

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By Gregory Krieg, CNN

Former President Donald Trump’s clout with Republican voters in a key swing state will be tested again on Tuesday as the fallout from the FBI search of his Florida resort mushrooms across the political landscape.

Wisconsin, where Republicans are selecting their nominee to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a crucial November election, is providing the headline contests, but three other states — Minnesota, Vermont and Connecticut — are also going to the polls, with races up and down the ballot poised to provide a clearer picture of an increasingly high-stakes midterm election season.

Wisconsin is the third state in which Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence have backed opposing GOP candidates for governor. Pence has backed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who, at the outset, appeared to be the party favorite in the primary. But Kleefisch, who served two terms as former Gov. Scott Walker’s second-in-command, is locked in a tight race with Tim Michels, a construction company owner who was endorsed by Trump and has gone further in embracing his 2020 election lies — mostly by indulging efforts to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in the state. Kleefisch has been more circumspect, triggering attacks from Trump.

Trump and Pence each have mixed records: Trump’s choice in Arizona, Kari Lake, a conservative commentator and election denier, narrowly won the nomination, while Pence’s pick in Georgia, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, defeated Trump-backed primary challenger David Perdue, a former senator, in a landslide.

The rubber match between the former running mates will settle the Republican Party’s slate of nominees for governor in the states that flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden four years later — Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. All five are expected to be fiercely contested again in 2024, and GOP victories in those political battlegrounds this fall could help ease Trump’s path back to the White House if he runs again.

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Wisconsin is also home to a critical GOP primary in the state legislature, where longtime Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, an arch conservative who has mostly gone along with Trump’s 2020 election claims, is being challenged by Adam Steen, who picked up a Trump endorsement because Vos, in the former President’s estimation, has been insufficiently bullish about right-wing efforts to have the state decertify his defeat.

Democrats, meanwhile, are very much enjoying the anticlimactic finish to what many expected to be a closely-contested Senate primary. After polls showed Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes pulling away from the field, his top rivals all dropped out in a span of a few days, effectively handing him the nomination and a November showdown with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s leading defenders in Washington and a top target for Democrats hoping to preserve or potentially expand their Senate majority.

Also in the Upper Midwest on Tuesday, Republicans in Minnesota will pick their candidate to face Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who is seeking a second term.

Scott Jensen, a doctor and former state lawmaker, all but clinched the nomination after winning the support of the state party. He faces Joyce Lynne Lacey and Bob “Again” Carney Jr., both heavy underdogs, in the primary. Jensen is a longtime critic of Walz, mostly railing against statewide lockdowns during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. But he also suggested hospitals inflated their counts of the sick and questioned the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, which Jensen has said he did not receive.

The race between Walz and Jensen could also help determine the fate of abortion rights in Minnesota. Jensen told Minnesota Public Radio in March that he would “try to ban abortion” if elected, a remark Walz and other Democrats have already seized on. Jensen, late last month, backed off his more aggressive language in remarks, saying he supports exceptions to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. But Democrats, emboldened by Kansas’ vote last week to preserve abortion rights in a statewide referendum, are expected to make the issue a central piece of their fall campaign.

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Voters in the current version of southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District will choose a replacement to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican who died earlier this year. The special election in the GOP-friendly district features Republican Brad Finstad and Democrat Jeffrey Ettinger. The winner will almost immediately head to Capitol Hill to serve out Hagedorn’s term.

But both candidates are also on the regular primary ballot as they vie for their respective parties’ nominations in a new version the district, which was redrawn ahead of the midterms. Ettinger, the former Hormel Foods chief executive, is expected to win easily on the Democratic side, but Finstad, a former state lawmaker and USDA official in the Trump administration, faces a tougher challenge in state Rep. Jeremy Munson as they replay their May primary, which was decided by only a few hundred votes.

History in the making in Vermont

Vermont Democrats are poised to nominate Rep. Peter Welch to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy, who will leave office next year after nearly 50 years on the job. Welch’s decision to run for the Senate created a rare open Democratic primary for the state’s lone House seat, setting in motion a contest that will almost certainly end with a history-making election.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray are the front-runners in a three-candidate race for the nomination to replace Welch in the House. If elected in the fall, either one could become the first woman elected to Congress from Vermont, which is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.

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Little separates Balint and Gray on the major issues, but their candidacies have split the loyalties of Vermont Sens. Bernie Sanders and Leahy. Sanders and leading progressives from around the country have endorsed Balint. Gray has the support of Leahy, who has donated to her cause and said he voted for her, though not formally endorsed in the race. Former Vermont Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin are also backing Gray.

But in a race that has seen the candidates themselves about level on fundraising, a flood of outside spending for Balint could help tip the scales. The LGBTQ Victory Fund has invested about $1 million into the race for Balint, who is gay. She has also benefited from spending by the campaign arm of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose chair, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, along with the progressive senators from neighboring Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, have all endorsed Balint.

Connecticut will also go to the polls on Tuesday, though there is little jeopardy in it for Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont or Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Both are unopposed in their primaries.

On the GOP side, former state lawmaker Themis Klarides is the favorite to win the nomination to take on Blumenthal in November. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski is, like Lamont, alone on the ballot Tuesday — setting the stage for a rematch of their 2018 race.

The-CNN-Wire
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