BROWNSVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Republican Tim Michels, a multimillionaire construction company co-owner who last ran for office nearly two decades ago, cast himself as an outsider candidate in launching his campaign for Wisconsin governor Monday to take out Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Michels, 59, joins a crowded field of GOP candidates, including former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, business owner Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun.
Michels, who along with his brothers runs his family business Michels Corp., could inject millions of his own wealth and shake up the primary race, which early polls have shown Kleefisch leading. Michels launched a statewide ad campaign Monday.
The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will take on Evers in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested governor's races in the country. Evers won in 2018 by a little more than 1 percentage point, in the second-tightest governor's race that cycle behind Florida.
Michels focused on Evers, not any of his Republican challengers, in his first statement as a candidate.
“Wisconsin is on the wrong track. From COVID to Kenosha, Tony Evers has been a terrible governor,” Michels said, referring to sometimes violent protests that occurred after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August 2020. “His instincts are awful and his policies are even worse.”
Evers' campaign spokesman Sam Roecker said Michels would be “in lockstep with the divisive agenda Republicans are pushing.” The Wisconsin Democratic Party branded Michels a “two-time failed candidate,” referring to his losses in a 1998 run for state Senate and a 2004 U.S. Senate bid where he was defeated by Democrat Russ Feingold.
Michels planned his first campaign event for Monday afternoon at Michels Corp.'s maintenance facility in Brownsville, just down the road from where he grew up.
Kleefisch has been racking up endorsements from many Republican power brokers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who had sought a clear field for Kleefisch to win the nomination.
But Nicholson and Ramthun have tried to run as outsiders, tapping into distrust of party leaders among some Republicans. Michels, despite his ties with Kleefisch and other politicians, his former runs for office and his company’s history of being awarded state contracts, also tried to cast himself as an outsider.
“I’m a business owner and a veteran — not a politician.” Michels said, promising to focus his campaign on the economy, education, public safety and election integrity.
Democrats noted that Michels previously served on the board of a conservative group Kleefisch ran before she got into the governor's race. He also served on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business lobbying organization, which is running ads in support of her.
Michels' company has won more than $1 billion in state contracts since 2013. Democrats were quick to point out that Michels Corp. was one of three contractors that double-billed the state, and was paid twice, for work done on Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange in 2015.
Michels Corp. was also part of a coalition of business groups that joined with unions in fighting a “right-to-work” proposal in Wisconsin that was championed by then-Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans in 2015. The business coalition also opposed ending the prevailing wage, which sets minimum salaries on state-funded construction projects.
Walker signed laws eliminating the prevailing wage and effectively banning mandatory union membership and the collection of dues. Kleefisch, who was Walker's lieutenant governor, joined him for the right-to-work bill signing.
Democrats on Monday branded Michels as an extremist, noting his past opposition to any exceptions for abortions and his stand against same-sex marriage. Because he has been away from politics for so long, however, Michels has not spoken on many of the current issues that the other candidates have, including Donald Trump's 2020 presidential election loss.
Michels told WISN-AM on Monday that he's met with Trump — as have Kleefisch and Ramthun. Michels also said he had questions about the 2020 election, but didn't elaborate.
Michels, a U.S. Army veteran, vowed to run an “aggressive” campaign and indicated he would largely self-fund, saying he would not accept donations from political action committees, lobbyists or more than $500 from any individual.
Scott Bauer, The Associated Press