Ad spending ramps up as another candidate enters Wisconsin governor’s race

MADISON, Wis. — Tim Michels’ entry into the Republican primary for governor on Monday came with a hefty price tag: the new candidate spent $980,000 on statewide TV advertisements.

Michels is the fourth high-profile Republican to enter the race after former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Tim Ramthun.

Recently, a political action committee supporting Kleefisch has made a six-figure radio ad buy, and Nicholson’s group spent $1.5 million on an ad last year — when the candidate was still mulling between a run for governor or U.S. Senate.

University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner said the early ad blitz is about introducing the candidates in a crowded field.

“It’s normal for campaigns to try to define themselves, and to define their opponents, early on in the campaign,” he said. “The audience for these ads are the people who are the most interested in politics.”

It is still a little less than a month before the Republican convention in Middleton, and even more before anyone starts voting — three months until the primary and six months until the general election.

“On the Republican side, it’s probably the case that they would like to replace Gov. [Tony] Evers, but with who is still an open question for them,” Wagner said. “Getting to know candidates and getting to know their issue priorities, getting to know their stated values, and the like, can often be laid in the groundwork from these early ads.”

Though Evers does not have a primary challenger, Wagner said there is still value to the incumbent defining himself early in the process.

“Not spending now might allow your campaign to get defined in a way you don’t want it to get defined. This happened to Tommy Thompson when he lost to Tammy Baldwin,” Wagner said. “A couple of election cycles ago, where Baldwin was on the air with ‘Tommy Thompson, he’s not for you anymore,’ for a very long time before Thompson went up in any serious way.”

He said that defined the Thompson campaign in a way that was hard for him to reclaim.

An ad campaign for Evers, however, could largely be positive.

“Republican ads have (the) potential to go negative against each other,” he said, “whereas Governor Evers can really be more positive and talk about what he’s accomplished and what he wants to do in the next cycle.”