Rebecca Kleefisch and a Review of Wisconsin Gubernatorial Bids by Lieutenant Governors
Just three sitting or former lieutenant governors in the state first became governor via the ballot box
On Thursday, former Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch made it official, launching her campaign to be the Republican nominee in the state’s 2022 gubernatorial election.
Kleefisch served eight years under Governor Scott Walker before their ticket was narrowly defeated by Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes in 2018.
And now, in what is currently a thin GOP field, Kleefisch is the decided front runner to take on Evers at the top of the ticket next year.
Wisconsin Republicans are hoping for a midterm cycle bounce – not an unreasonable expectation considering the poor record Wisconsin gubernatorial nominees of the party of the sitting president have endured over the last 90 years: winning just five of 33 elections since 1932.
But the track record of Wisconsin lieutenant governors ascending to the state’s top office – barring those who did so after the death or resignation of the governor – has been quite rare over the decades.
Over the last 170+ years since statehood, just three former or sitting lieutenant governors first earned their gubernatorial stripes via the ballot box.
Seven lieutenant governors succeeded their predecessors following the governor’s departure before the end of the term:
- Democrat Arthur MacArthur in 1856 (following the resignation of William Barstow)
- Republican Edward Salomon in 1862 (following the death of Louis Harvey)
- Republican James Davidson in 1906 (following the resignation of Robert La Follette to become U.S. Senator)
- Republican Walter Goodland in 1943 (following the pre-inauguration death of Progressive Orland Loomis)
- Republican Oscar Rennebohm in 1947 (following the death of Walter Goodland)
- Democrat Martin Schrieber in 1977 (following the resignation of Patrick Lucey to become U.S. Ambassador to Mexico)
- Republican Scott McCallum in 2001 (following the resignation of Tommy Thompson to become U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services)
MacArthur, who served just four days after the controversial gubernatorial Election of 1855, never ran for governor outright.
Three others lost their first subsequent gubernatorial bids: Salomon lost the GOP nomination in 1863 to former Lieutenant Governor James Lewis, Schrieber lost the 1978 general election to Lee Dreyfus, and McCallum lost the 2002 general election to Jim Doyle.
Three incumbents who became governor via succession did win another term: Davidson in 1906 and 1908, Goodland in 1946, and Rennebohm in 1948.
In addition to the failed gubernatorial bids by Salomon, Schrieber, and McCallum, four other lieutenant governors also fell short of the mark:
- 1920: Sitting Republican LG Edward Dithmar (1915-1921) placed a distant fifth in the GOP primary with 8.3 percent – more than 20 points behind John Blaine
- 1940: Former Progressive LG Henry Gunderson (1937) was last in the five-candidate Progressive primary won by Orland Loomis with just 9.4 percent
- 1966: Sitting Democratic LG Patrick Lucey (1965-1967) fell 7.4 points shy of unseating Governor Warren Knowles in his first gubernatorial run
- 1970: Sitting Republican LG Jack Olson (1963-1965, 1967-1971) lost to Lucey in a matchup of two LGs
That leaves just three sitting or former lieutenant governors who first became governor via election:
- 1863: Republican James Lewis (1854-1856) who previously served as a Democratic lieutenant governor
- 1964: Republican Warren Knowles (1961-1963) who unseated Governor John Reynolds
- 1970: The aforementioned Democrat Patrick Lucey (1965-1967) on his second attempt in an open seat race
Evers has won four statewide general elections – three times for the Superintendent of Public Instruction (2009, 2013, 2017) and once for governor (2018).
Kleefisch did so three times for lieutenant governor (2010, 2012’s recall, and 2014).
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It’s even worse when they run for the Senate. By my count, five sitting or former lieutenant governors have run for the Senate in Wisconsin since popular election began, and they all lost: Thomas Morris (1911-15) lost the GOP primary in 1914; Edward Dithmar lost running as an independent against Robert La Follette, Jr. in the 1925 special; Herman Ekern (1938-39) was the losing Progressive nominee in 1938; Warren Knowles (1955-59, 1961-63) lost the special GOP primary in 1957; finally, Russell Olsen (1979-83) lost the GOP primary in 1980. (Don’t tell Mandela Barnes!)
The other sitting lieutenant governor who is a 2022 Senate frontrunner is John Fetterman (D-PA). He would, similarly, be the first lieutenant governor to become senator from Pennsylvania, though it seems there was only one other lieutenant governor to have run in the direct election era: Mark Singel (1987-95) ran in the 1992 Senate election, losing the Democratic primary to Lynn Yeakel by a 44.8%-32.5% margin. (An acting lieutenant governor, Weldon Brinton Heyburn (Jan. 7-21, 1947), did not run for Senate but had the same name as a senator from Idaho; he was born the same month his namesake(?) was sworn in as senator.) Fetterman previously ran for the Senate in 2016, receiving 19.5% of the vote in the Democratic primary and placing third behind Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak; this is the only Senate bid by a *future* lieutenant governor in state history.
The lack of former lieutenant governors in Pennsylvania’s Senate delegation seems especially strange since the four other statewide elected offices have all been successfully used as stepping-stones to the Senate: governor (Martin, Duff), attorney-general (Duff), treasurer (Martin, Casey), and auditor-general (Martin, Casey).
Contrast this with Hawaii, where both current U.S. senators, Mazie Hirono (1994-2002) and Brian Schatz (2010-2012), are former lieutenant governors!
How about the 0% success of those in MD, AR, FL, AK and NJ running for Gov.- Side note NJ has only had the Lt. Gov. position since the 2009 cycle and there have been Lt. Gov.’s who have ascended to the Gov. but were not elected gov. before that. Examples include Jim Tucker and Mike Huckabee in AR, Sean Parnell in AK and my favorite example, Buddy MacKay of FL who lost to Jeb Bush in 1998 however ironically became Gov. for 3 weeks after the outgoing gov. passed away.
Like I said in a past article, MD might change that next year if democratic congressman Anthony Brown is elected. AR seemed on track to drop too until Tim Griffin drop out to run for A.G.
When they were standing for elections for full terms, Saloman and Schrieber were ACTING governors upon their respective ascensions (a 1979 amendment made the matter more explicit in cases of permanent departures like resignation; in the event of impeachment, absence, or incapacity, the LTG becomes acting governor until the governor is again able to serve).
Unlike lieutenant governors of some nearby states, Rebecca Ann Kleefisch has won elections in her own right, namely the 2012 (standalone) recall election and the 2010 Republican primary election (one of at least a half-dozen states where GUV and LTG are elected jointly but nominated in separate primary contests). But history does not quote odds in her favour; the most recent LTG to have become governor directly via ballot box served as one before it ceased to become a standalone elective post.