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Despite Initial Doubts, Wisconsin's Second-In-Command Soars

Jun 10, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 6:31 pm

Few people expected it, but Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is now a rising GOP star. The mother of two is a former TV news anchor and a cancer survivor, who left the hospital just in time to vote in her own primary.

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The GOP is trying to elect more women to bring more conservative women to the national stage. And they've had some success in lieutenant governor's offices. Eleven states have women in the second highest office and, of those, seven are Republicans. NPR's Tamara Keith met with one who is getting natural attention - Rebecca Kleefisch of Wisconsin.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: As a former TV news anchor, Wisconsin lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch is used to ribbon cuttings and a constant smile.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I can take it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, everyone look at this camera first.

MAN 1: All right. Here we go. One...


MAN 1: Two...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: I think it's a keeper.

TAMARA KEITH: Following her around on an average day is exhausting, as she goes from an event at a prison to a manufacturing fair and, finally, an international trade expo. Shaking hands and giving speeches at each one without notes.


REBECCA KLEEFISCH: As you know, the governor has lowered taxes every single year we've been in office. And we want to continue to commit to that, to you, today.

KEITH: In Wisconsin, the lieutenant governor doesn't have many or really any legally mandated responsibilities. So Kleefisch has taken on the mantle of the state's chief marketing officer. She attends cabinet meetings, tries to recruit companies to relocate to Wisconsin and is working on tax reform.

KLEEFISCH: We have so much to be proud of in the state, and I'm just blessed to have the job where I get to talk about it all the time.

KEITH: And gubernatorial politics, Wisconsin is what's known as a shotgun marriage state. The lieutenant governor runs in their own primary, and then, in the general election, shares a ticket with the nominee for governor. In 2010, some on Governor Scott Walker's campaign staff didn't want Kleefisch to win the nomination.

KLEEFISCH: I was aware.

KEITH: She was the first candidate voted off of the endorsement ballot at the state Republican Party convention.

KLEEFISCH: Just because you land hard doesn't mean you don't pick yourself up, dust yourself off, walk to the back of the convention hall, shake everyone's hand and ask for their vote when it really counts in the September primary. So that's what I did.

KEITH: Ultimately, she won that primary. Not yet 40 and a mother of two, she beat a field of seasoned politicians by 20 points. Dave Ross - now, a cabinet secretary - was one of her opponents.

DAVE ROSS: When we are on the campaign road, and I'd look at Rebecca's minivan, and she'd be driving to one event after another, I got a front row seat to watch how passionate she was about wanting to be lieutenant governor and driving the issues across the state.

KEITH: Kleefisch entered politics shortly after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's meteoric political rise - a coincidence that naturally led to comparisons. Asked what she learned from Palin's experience, Kleefisch responded cautiously.

KLEEFISCH: You have to be well-prepared, regardless of who you are. On the public stage, in a public arena, you have to not just be wide, you have to be deep.

KEITH: And ready to answer any question on any topic at any time. Early on, she had a couple stumbles. She was asked about domestic partner benefits for state employees on a Christian radio program.


KLEEFISCH: At what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table, or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs? This is ridiculous.

KEITH: Kleefisch later apologized for her poor choice of words, but she doesn't apologize for her strong Christian faith. Mike Tate is state chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

MIKE TATE: Where she ever to be a candidate in her own right, in a general election, I think that she would wither pretty quickly under, you know, the scrutiny.

KEITH: Still, Kleefisch has already been through worse. She discovered shortly before the primary that she had cancer.

KLEEFISCH: I figured that this was what all of my opponents were experiencing, too. That they all had gut rot, and that they all had backaches. And that they all felt like they were going to go down in the middle of a parade.

KEITH: Actually, it was colon cancer. And when it was finally discovered, she says the tumor was the size of a grapefruit.

KLEEFISCH: I got out of the hospital from the first surgery on the day of my primary election. Literally got out, went to vote, went back to my mom's house, brushed my hair, put on makeup, went to my victory party.

KEITH: Kleefisch started chemotherapy two days after she and Governor Walker won in the general election. About a year later, she became the first lieutenant governor ever to face a recall election, and she survived that, too. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.