Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, likes to talk about butter. By the time we’re done talking, I know exactly how to buy a month’s worth from a Wisconsin Kwik Trip—and what Kleefisch thinks that has to do with Republican politics.
Kleefisch, 38, is a former local news anchor-turned-politician, with a sharp eye for marketing. She thinks Republicans, and politicians in general, spend too much time talking in millions and billions. “I don’t budget in millions and billions. I budget in twenties and then hundreds. If we continue to talk in millions and billions we make politics and policy inaccessible to people who don’t talk ‘legalese’ as their native language.” So instead, she communicates how much Governor Scott Walker’s newest policies will save Wisconsin in terms of coffee, gasoline, and butter.
According to Kleefisch, Governor Scott Walker’s “Blueprint for Prosperity,” a bill cutting income and property taxes which he recently signed into law, will save the average Wisconsin family $681 this year. She estimates that's about 337 packages of butter. But, she warns me, I’ll be limited to purchasing five packages per visit when they're on sale at Kwik Trip, per store policy.
Kleefisch is now running her third campaign for lieutenant governor after being elected in 2010 and surviving a recall campaign, along with Walker, in 2012. Walker is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and there’s a chance she could one day succeed him as governor. Charlie Sykes, a popular Wisconsin radio host and political commentator, thinks her future might hinge on how Walker leaves office. If he doesn’t serve out his full term, he thinks she’ll be a dominant figure in the race. If he retires after his full term, it could be a much more open race—although Sykes says there’s “not a lot of buzz at all” about other potential candidates. It’s still early to predict much, but Sykes believes she “ought to be considered a rising star, even nationally.”
So who is Rebecca Kleefisch? She once worked as an anchor for an ABC affiliate in Milwaukee, before she married and had a child. She took time off for a short while, but always with an eye to getting back to work. She says she always knew “my baby would just assimilate into my world as a career woman.” She started a media and marketing company, Rebecca Kleefisch Enterprises, Inc. But ever a political junkie at heart, she soon turned her marketing skills to her own political career and ran for lieutenant governor.
Once elected as Wisconsin’s “Jobs Ambassador,” Kleefisch ruffled feathers with her unusual tactics. While reading about Illinois tax hikes in the Chicago Tribune, she took note of the names of “some angry CEOs.” She cold-called them and “offered them greener pastures” in her state. FatWallet.com, a shopping discount company, took her advice. Fox Business live streamed the FatWallet moving trucks as they drove across the border from Illinois.
“There were a lot of people who found that shocking or controversial,” she says. “I really didn’t see what the big deal was. They just don’t do those things in government, but I think that’s why it’s important to have folks from the private sector make a visit to government every now and again.” Comments like this make her popular with the Tea Party.
Kleefisch is easily likened to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Fox News featured Kleefisch on a program about “Mama Grizzlies”—a phrase coined by Palin herself to describe GOP women who see their political roles as fighting for the future of their “cubs,” part of what Palin has called a “mom awakening.” The Wisconsin State Journal called Kleefisch “our Mama Grizzly.”
Like Palin, Kleefisch is polished and attractive, with the poise of a broadcast journalist. Both women have been called “Barbies.” As lieutenant governor, her domain is limited to job growth, so she doesn’t talk much about social issues. But, like Palin, she occasionally gets in trouble for making incendiary remarks, like the time she compared gay marriage to marrying a dog. If Kleefisch wants to make it to the governor's mansion one day, she'll need to put comments like that behind her.
Kleefisch talks about her role as a mom frequently, but bristles at what she calls sexist remarks from the media. In a short Politico video, she describes the time a local reporter asked her if negative emails written about her by aides and recently uncovered in an investigation of Scott Walker’s time as county executive “hurt her feelings.” “I would find it really hard to believe if that same journalist turned around and asked my governor, who is a man, ‘Governor, did it hurt your feelings when someone said something about you?’” She scoffs at the idea that she should be so thin-skinned.
There’s no question that Kleefisch is tough. Two weeks before her 2010 primary, doctors found “a grapefruit-sized tumor in my gut,” she recalls. The tumor required immediate surgery. She was released from the hospital a few hours before the polls closed on election night. She rushed to the polls to vote, and then left for her victory party.
She also survived the only recall election against a lieutenant governor in history, spurred by Governor Walker’s controversial public employee union reforms. The recall brought some attention to her when national conservative figures rallied around her, like Michelle Malkin, and, of course, Sarah Palin.
When she’s not cold-calling CEOs, Kleefisch develops worker training programs and public-private partnerships to address unemployment problems. In one instance, she found a private foundation willing to help unemployed people who had lost their drivers licenses pay to reinstate them. She uses this as an example of what government should do to eliminate common barriers to employment, like lack of transportation.
Kleefisch is clearly driven by her marketing training in everything she does. “As journalists, we’re storytellers, aren’t we?” she says. So far, Kleefisch and Governor Scott Walker have an impressive story to tell. The previous administration’s $3.6 billion deficit turned into a $759 million surplus by 2013. Since Republicans took control, unemployment dropped from 9.2 percent to 6.3 percent.
Kleefisch won’t say what she hopes the future holds for her. But with abundant rumors of a Walker presidential run, she’s bound to be wondering how far that story could take her.