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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 38.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Rebecca Kleefisch, stealth Mama Grizzly
Walker campaign seems eager to keep lieutenant governor choice out of limelight
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Kleefisch: Not talking.
Kleefisch: Not talking.

Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, is a proud Christian woman. She's a wife and mother who drives a minivan, clips coupons and has what she calls "kitchen-table common sense." She also boasts a large Tea Party backing for her ultra-conservative beliefs and platform.

Sound familiar? You betcha!

"Kleefisch is very Sarah Palin-esque, and she's embraced that," notes UW political science professor Barry Burden. "It's easy to see a lot of similarities in their backgrounds, their identities as mothers, their concerns on size of government and their folksy approach."

Indeed, Kleefisch has long drawn comparisons to the Republican darling from Alaska, and even appeared on Fox News in July as a "Mama Grizzly," Palin-slang for conservative women eager to protect their cubs.

But is Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, who ran separately in the Sept. 14 primary, worried that Kleefisch's far-right-wing image could hurt his chances, as Palin arguably did for her running mate, John McCain? While Walker says he voted for Kleefisch, who got 47% of the vote in a five-way race, there are signs that his campaign sees her as a liability.

Walker campaign officials and even Kleefisch herself deflected a week's worth of requests from Isthmus for a brief phone interview. At one point, Walker spokeswoman Jill Bader asked for a list of questions with a noncommittal "I'll see what I can do."

Contacted directly through Facebook, Kleefisch responded that she forwarded the request to Bader, who handles her media schedule. But the campaign never agreed to let the interview take place, with Bader claiming that Kleefisch's schedule is "swamped."

"It sounds like they don't trust her, which is surprising because of her background in media and public relations," Burden says. "It makes it harder for the ticket to say it's balanced if one candidate is speaking or one voice is speaking for both. It hurts her credibility if she's not allowed to talk to media."

Kleefisch, who'll turn 36 in October, announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor earlier this year, saying she was worried about the state's future.

"I'll tell you what's wrong with Wisconsin: the liberal leaders," Kleefisch said in a campaign video. "They've taken us down the path of irresponsible spending and irresponsible taxes in order to make up for it." While allowing that "some of these programs" may be good, "we just can't afford them right now." She didn't specify what programs she meant.

Though Kleefisch, a former TV news anchor at Milwaukee's WISN-TV, does not have any political experience, her husband, Joel Kleefisch, serves in the state Assembly, representing the area around their hometown of Oconomowoc. In the primary, Kleefisch bested the favored candidate, Brett Davis, an Assembly rep from Oregon who had the backing of such prominent Republicans as former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Congressman Mark Green.

"She's an interesting candidate who surprised her party," says Burden, mentioning her Tea Party credentials. "She tapped into that vein in the way Brett Davis couldn't."

On Kleefisch's Facebook page, supporters congratulated her for defeating the "RINO" candidate Davis. The term RINO - Republican in name only - is big among conservatives looking to reclaim the Republican Party for "true believers."

But Burden doubts Kleefisch's conservative image will add much to the Walker ticket. Walker, the current Milwaukee County executive, has already established his conservative image among the party faithful, so adding Kleefisch doesn't do much to widen the ticket's appeal.

"I don't think she brings a lot to round out Scott Walker's image," Burden says. "If Walker were a different kind of candidate, more moderate or unconventional, then he might need Kleefisch, but I think he's convinced the Republican base he's their kind of guy."

Of course, the Walker campaign disagrees with such assessments, insisting that Walker is pleased to have Kleefisch on the ticket because of the enthusiasm both candidates inspire.

"One of the great things about our campaign, and we saw this in the primary, is we had an amazing turnout and organization in all 72 counties," says Bader. "The fact those people are coming out in droves is a good sign for us in November."

But the Walker camp has quickly taken over Kleefisch's scheduling and media relations. Even the "issues" page on Kleefisch's campaign website now links to Walker's website instead of her original content, which incorporated more religious flavoring in her pro-life and marriage-protection stances.

In her campaigning before the primary, Kleefisch unabashedly promoted her faith and the role it would play in her approach to the job of lieutenant governor. Her campaign even put out a flyer stating that, once in office, she "plans on making decisions the same way she does today - relying on the wisdom and faith she has in Jesus."

Since her primary victory, Kleefisch has continued campaigning both on her own and with Walker, but has been relatively low-key with media appearances. She did grant an interview to Wisconsin Eye, the public affairs broadcast network, but spent most of the time cheerleading for Walker and made no reference to her religious ideology.

Kleefisch and Walker will take on the Democrats' ticket of Tom Barrett and Tom Nelson - respectively the mayor of Milwaukee and outgoing majority leader of the state Assembly. Burden says the two candidates for lieutenant governor provide an interesting contrast.

"Nelson rounds out Barrett's image because he's from a rural part of the state and he's younger than Barrett," he says. "Kleefisch kind of hardens Walker's image because they're both from southeastern Wisconsin and very conservative."

Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak also cites geography, noting that Nelson is from Kaukauna, in the distant Fox Valley, while the Republican candidates live within an hour of each other. But Bader says, "Scott and Rebecca have been almost everywhere and plan to go everywhere again. We believe their message reaches all sorts of people across the state."

Nelson, who responded to an interview request from Isthmus within an hour, says he's confident that he and Barrett offer voters a solid statewide ticket.

"We need a strong leader in the governor's office, and I for one believe that Barrett is going to be a fantastic governor," says Nelson, who is not running for reelection. "I've given up my seat in the Assembly and given up majority leadership because I can't wait to work with him."

Of his opponent, Nelson says the lieutenant governor's office is too important a job to go to someone like Kleefisch, with no real leadership experience.

"The lieutenant governor has to be a person ready to lead in case of emergency. God forbid that happens, but given my track record in the Legislature, I will be ready to lead. I would not run if I didn't think I was in a position to do that."

At present, there are no scheduled debates between the lieutenant governor candidates, but Nelson says Wisconsin Public Radio contacted him about the possibility of scheduling a debate: "I called and emailed WPR and said I'd love to."

Rebecca Kleefisch, in her own words

"Know how many sweet, teal 1999 minivans I could buy w/ the $800mil from the "high speed" train 4 WI? 266,667..."
- Twitter post, March 8.

"...In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, NIV)"
- Twitter post, April 13.

"Liberal spammers are busy on Facebook today! It's amazing how much time is spent to mock conservatives and Christians."
- Facebook post, April 14.

"Sorry, Mike, I don't remember the part in the Bible where Jesus says, 'I want you to be liberals...'"
- Twitter post in response to a Huffington Post article, May 25.

"Psalm 20:7 [Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.]"
- Facebook post, Sept. 2.

"8 p.m. His will be done."
- Facebook post, primary election night.

"The sound you hear is hundreds of thousands minivans being revved up. We ride today! Bring on November!"
- Facebook post, the day after the Sept. 14 primary.

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