Capitol Punishments: The debate that bullshit built

Takeaways from the alternate reality of the first debate in Wisconsin’s GOP gubernatorial primary.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Takeaways from the alternate reality of the first debate in Wisconsin’s GOP gubernatorial primary.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

I watched the GOP’s gubernatorial debate on Sunday between Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels, and Tim Ramthun so you could be spared. There’s a lot to unpack and I would love to see a history class dissect it 100 years from now, but here are some of my takeaways.

First, this has been written about extensively but it bears repeating: many of the key talking points on that stage are not only divorced from reality but are deliberately created fictions—even lies—that have now been so thoroughly disproven that it should be shocking that all three candidates in the gubernatorial primary are promoting them.


Everyone on that stage said there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election, which is untrue and has been proven to be untrue over and over again. Ramthun cited Michael Gableman’s report, which just repeated the same vapid talking points he’d been saying for months and providing no evidence. Joe Biden won Wisconsin, and the evidence to back that up is consistent. The claim that the election was stolen is not only a Big Lie, it is also being perpetuated by the most transparently incompetent, unqualified hucksters and grifters in American politics. But that’s plenty good enough for the lie to be treated as legitimate during a Republican gubernatorial debate.

And of course critical race theory (CRT) got some airtime even though it is an entirely manufactured controversy with zero relevance to education unless you’re at law school. Kleefisch even threw out the phrase “critical race feminism,” which is a real area of study looking at the intersectional relationship between race and gender in structural inequities. But coming from Kleefisch it sounds like a moral-panic edition of Mad Libs.

The only actual meat of the discussion during Sunday’s debate was about taxes. The latest projection from the Department of Revenue is that the state will have a $5.4 billion surplus and of course the response from all three candidates was that we need to cut taxes—not repair roads, invest in expanding internet access, shore up our rapidly dying family farms or, God forbid, invest in sustainable infrastructure such as public transit or alternative energy sources.

Of course, with $5.4 billion there’s definitely some room for tax cuts, but with Republicans you know how that’s going to play out. They’ll throw a bone to people making between $35k and $150k, but the bulk of the cuts will be for members of the highest income brackets, aka their donors. Meanwhile they’ll continue to starve our local governments, schools, and state agencies of funding, so those entities will have to make up the difference by raising fees and/or property taxes, essentially shifting the burden from those high-income earners who got the tax cuts to the middle and working classes.

Proving a broken clock is right twice a day, Ramthun actually had an interesting proposal—eliminating property taxes. Of course, we would need the details about how municipalities and school districts would be funded without that revenue, but one of the foundations of the inequalities in our communities and particularly our education system is the funding model reliant on property taxes. It’s why wealthy communities have well-funded schools while divested communities’ schools struggle to meet their students’ basic needs.

Of course if we do eliminate property taxes, we would also need robust programs to promote equitable opportunities for homeownership. So, a lot of caveats, but not the worst idea thrown out that evening.

Side note: the second time Ramthun was right was when he called Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) a bully. 

The debate also solidified for me that the push for Michels over Kleefisch is classic Good Ol’ Boy sexism. Michels was more interested in veering his answers off the actual question topic and back onto his rote talking points: he served in the military, he runs a business with 8,000 employees, so he’s a leader. 

The moderators, TMJ4’s Charles Benson and Shannon Sims, picked up on this pattern pretty quickly. Instead of waiting to ask Michels to actually answer the question or provide some details in the follow-up, both moderators started stressing that they wanted him to “be specific” or “give specific examples” in their initial questions. One follow-up question was whether he had any “original or innovative” ideas that he’d bring to his administration, to which he answered he’d audit all government agencies.

And my position on the role of sexism in this primary isn’t born out of “women supporting women,” because Kleefisch does not support women. During the debate, she defended her anti-choice stance with a patronizing tale of poor vulnerable pregnant women being coerced into getting abortions by evil feminists and liberals, even though last I checked, liberals and feminists were not leading the charge to shame single mothers.  

One of the few times Kleefisch waffled on stage was when she was asked about paid family leave, which should not be controversial for someone who has given birth and should understand that even in the best case scenario people need time to recover from the physical toll it takes. Instead she pivoted straight to talking about child care. Child care is important, but it does not solve the issue of new parents needing time to physically recover and care for their infant.

But at least she took concrete stances and laid out detailed policy positions that (unfortunately) line up with the Republican platform. Michels’ wildest stance was that he’s against red flag laws, which would allow courts to temporarily confiscate someone’s firearms if they’re proven to be a danger to themselves or others. But other than that, the most concrete positions he gave were supporting school choice, auditing government agencies, and a well-worn diatribes about training kids in trades in high school. He even trotted out the decades-old trope about teachers pushing kids into four-year schools to learn “something like Eastern European literature.”


I don’t know what Michels has over Kleefisch other than checking all boxes for an archetype of masculinity that is appealing to conservatives: man, military, business. Or maybe it’s because he’s boring and some Republicans are hoping they can bring in moderates who’ve been turned off by Trumpism. Or, most likely scenario, Republicans will say that it’s because of the latter, because they don’t want to admit that in 2022 they’ve sidelined Kleefisch because she’s a woman.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

Eight stories over eight days, delivered directly to your inbox.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top