The Republican gubernatorial front-runner goes for the throat.
Illustration: An outline of Rebecca Kleefisch over a background of blurry static. Background via get directly down on Flickr.
The most obvious thing to say about the Republican Party primary for governor of Wisconsin is that they are doing a lackluster job of it because they do not care.
Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, a maybe from Eric Hovde? This is a half-assed primary field. It’s not the activity of a party seriously invested in persuading voters and firing up a network of popular support, seizing the opportunity that midterm elections conventionally represent for the party not holding the Presidency. Floppy Gumby man Sean Duffy’s presence would have at least made things interesting.
The recurrence of election cycles is incidental—a nuisance, really—in a post-January 6 world. Republicans don’t want to win elections so much as convince a fevered minority of far-right voters that Republicans are the only people with any legitimate claim to power and thus are the real winners of every race any way you cut it. That is the only framework in which it makes sense to run your election campaign on the central theme of attacking the elections process, as Kleefisch has consistently done. The former Lieutenant Governor’s campaign has asked the courts to bar the use of ballot drop boxes, and has joined the chorus of Republicans calling for the dissolution of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. She cartoonishly escalated this rhetoric last week, telling a right-wing radio host in Green Bay that voters need “essentially one throat to choke” if “elections go wrong,” and, along with Nicholson just happened to end up speaking in front of a Three Percenters flag.
This is an open, fascist endorsement of violence and voter intimidation. It is also completely in keeping with mainstream Republican politics and the vindictive, one-dimensional campaign Kleefisch is running. This is not a candidate working to win over voters with narratives, policies, or anything that’s about anything. Kleefisch is an uncanny husk filled with nothing but a particularly blunt and purified take on retail resentment politics. Whatever you think of Tony Evers, you can at least identify him with a few things. Public schools, tepid left-of-center policy, a general tendency toward moderation and civility. He’s not exciting but he is nominally about something.
Kleefisch’s platform, such as it is, really doesn’t display much effort or cunning. It’s a dumpy wishlist for the most deranged parents at the school-board meeting, combined with a recipe for even more over-policing of communities already suffering from over-policing. It leads with “Hire 1,000 new cops across the state” and “Surge State Patrol in high-crime areas,” which is just a slightly fancier way of saying “something something Kenosha burning.” There are some feeble gestures toward improving mental-health resources and job things, but all the real oomph and energy in the campaign is in the systematic punishment of people the far right considers unworthy.
This doesn’t mean the GOP has “lost its way” or betrayed a more principled former self. For at least a generation, the Republican Party has appealed to spiteful indifference and cataclysmic selfishness. Republicans fundamentally believe themselves as the only people entitled to political power, citizenship, or, well, existence. The GOP is not the only destructive force in American politics, but it is the primary incubator for the quintessentially American disease of thinking that the bigger picture has nothing to do with you.
Kleefisch does not seem all that committed to dressing it all up as anything more than that. Walker, with his disciplined if disingenuous messaging, put more effort into pretending that right-wing politics were really about prosperity or anything other than pure disdain, greed, and power-lust. Until he signed on fully with the Trump camp, Walker even tried to convince us that he was somehow different from Trump, rather than a bland template for the same thing.
Put it another way. Last time we had a midterm election under a first-term Democratic president, Republicans treated it as a launching pad for generational hopes. Walker built his entire political identity and narrative around it, busting out the clearly planned surprise of Act 10 so that he could cite the predictable backlash as evidence of his own principled courage. This was all bullshit. The Republican class of 2010 turned out to be even more flimsy and clownish than we could have imagined. It was still somewhat predicated on the energetic pursuit of votes. But once firmly entrenched in power, Walker began slashing away at these procedural inconveniences. Kleefisch is stretching out into the unencumbered path that Walker and legislative Republicans have cleared for the right.
Donors still play a key role. It still costs money to run a campaign, even if it’s less about legitimacy and more about keeping the minoritarian mob on-call. To the extent that there is an electoral strategy here, it just seems to be a crude re-run of 2018, pushing harder on racist backlash, and hoping the narrow margin of victory creeps back in the other direction.
Either way, the real hard political work of the GOP is elsewhere. Republicans have repeatedly tried to build a shadow-executive power base in one legislative committee, launched a dangerous if comically inept election investigation, and displayed unflinching contempt in the face of public pressure to act on issues ranging from COVID to gun violence to policing to racial equity. However Wisconsinites vote, Republicans will try to hold the power they have and seize more.
Come on. If Evers wins, what will Republicans do? It was easy enough to predict 2018’s lame-duck laws, and I’m not a predicting sort of person generally. In the somehow even more volatile climate of 2022, one must at least anticipate a further escalation. It’s hard to guess, and it’s really not hard to guess.
The “choke” incident neatly ties together the two defining principles of the GOP: indifference to the consent of the governed, and a relentless drive to punish anyone who’s not the absolute core of far-right politics. Don’t call it a gaffe. This is intentional and unapologetic. Kleefisch is plainly saying Republicans would like to strangle anyone who stands between them and unfettered power. The one throat is all of our throats.