Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and his Republican challenger, construction magnate Tim Michels, met in Madison Friday night for the sole debate of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, clashing on crime, abortion access, education and more.
The hour-long debate, hosted by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, featured a panel of journalists from across the state asking a wide-ranging set of questions. Both Evers and Michels struggled at times, with the governor failing to offer concise answers and Michels lacking specifics while responding to questions.
The discussion commenced with a question about what the two candidates would do to address rising costs for Wisconsin families.
Evers pointed to multiple proposals his office has released since January to combat rising costs, including using some of the state’s multi-billion dollar budget surplus to provide $150 “surplus refund” checks to individuals and to provide tax cuts for middle-class Wisconsinites.
Both of those proposals were rejected by the Republican-controlled Legislature. On Friday night, Evers pledged to continue to pursue a tax cut for working-class Wisconsinites, said he would fight to eliminate the state’s minimum markup requirement on gasoline and provide tax credits for childcare.
Michels said he’s “going to do everything I can to put more money in people's pockets to help them with the price at the pump and the surging price of groceries.”
He said he would pursue “massive tax reform” and “get more money in people's pockets here in Wisconsin.”
On sharing funds with local governments
From there, Evers and Michels answered questions about how they’d approach shared revenue — the amount of state dollars sent to local municipalities — in Wisconsin. The Republican candidate said he’s “going to make sure that we have adequate funding for the big problems,” noting that the state’s annual spending tops $40 billion.
Moderator Jill Geisler, the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University, pushed Michels for more specifics about his vision for the state’s “shared revenue formula.”
The construction magnate did not provide further details, for which Evers chided him.
“When I when I ran for office the first time, I made a pledge to the counties and municipalities across the state that we would increase shared revenue,” Evers said, noting that his first two budget proposals included increases in state dollars for local governments, only to have the increase “zeroed out” by Republican lawmakers.
Evers called increasing shared revenue his “top priority,” and it was an important element of several of his plans, including around crime prevention.
“If we want our municipalities to do the hard work, they deserve to have the money,” Evers said in response to a question about how he’d work to prevent crime in Wisconsin. He said local municipalities are crying out for more resources.
In response, Michels simply said he would “be tough.”
“I am going to lead the men and women of law enforcement,” he said. “That's how you get crime down in Wisconsin.”
“We're going to have plenty of money for law enforcement because crime is surging all across Wisconsin,” Michels said. He did not mention increasing shared revenue for local governments, but the Republican has said he would find more state money for local police departments.
On abortion access
Evers and Michels traded barbs over their different views on abortion access. Both candidates were asked whether they support criminalizing medication abortion and “people in Wisconsin crossing state lines to get an abortion in a state where it is legal.”
Michels said he is pro-life, “and I make no apologies for that.” He added that he is a “common sense guy” and would sign a bill updating the state’s 1849 abortion ban to include exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
Michels said he is not against contraception and he’s “not going to be this radical guy with checks at the border” for people leaving the state for abortion care.
Evers said his bottom line is “women should have the ability and the right to make decisions about their health care, including reproductive health care, and that includes abortion.”
“My opponent is radical on this issue,” Evers charged. “We ... had 50 years of Roe vs. Wade, and it's worked here in the state of Wisconsin, we should go back there.”
Evers and other Wisconsin Democrats have sought to make next month’s election a referendum on abortion access in the state.
There were also stark contrasts between the two candidates when it came to the state’s education system.
Michels once again said he would implement universal school choice, adding that the state’s K-12 education system “can't get any worse” and that empowering parents will improve learning outcomes.
He did not offer specifics about his plan for universal school choice, but did not dispute the question’s premise that such a program “would open up private school attendance to any student at taxpayer expense.”
Evers said he believes Wisconsin’s K-12 education system needs more resources from the state.
“I've run for office several times now in the state of Wisconsin,” Evers said. “Republican moms and dads and Democratic moms and dads want great schools. And that is what we're going to get.”
The governor said he would once again seek more funds for the state’s K-12 schools.
On campaign attacks
To conclude the debate, both candidates were given 90 seconds to push back against attacks the other side has launched against them.
Michels said the opposing side “has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to characterize me as radical and irresponsible.”
“That's anything but the truth,” he said. “I'm a leader that will take responsibility. I'm a man of integrity, and we will have a better Wisconsin for generations to come.”
Evers used the opportunity as a closing statement of sorts.
“We're going to be making a huge choice here in the state of Wisconsin,” he said of next month’s vote. “It's about continuing to do the right thing, being a strong Wisconsin or, frankly, going backward.”
Evers and Michels will face off on Election Day, Nov. 8.