Business owner Tim Michels, the latest entrant in the crowded Republican gubernatorial field, said Monday he will not seek large individual donations and will refuse contributions from political action committees and lobbyists — underscoring that the millionaire plans to run a largely self-funded campaign.
Michels, 59, joins former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, business owner Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, in the Aug. 9 GOP primary. The winner will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is seeking a second term this year, in the general election on Nov. 8.
“Today begins a new era in Wisconsin,” Michels told a crowd of about 200 supporters, family members, Michels Corp. employees and others gathered inside a company maintenance building in Brownsville on Monday.
“Enough of the political bickering,” Michels said. “Enough of the left and right not getting along. We need to bring people together.”
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In a Monday interview with WISN-AM, Michels positioned himself as a political outsider seeking to address “weak leadership in Madison,” similar to campaign stances already taken by Nicholson and Ramthun, who entered the race earlier this year.
The U.S. Army veteran, who registered his gubernatorial campaign on Friday and launched a television ad buy over the weekend, said he “will never ask anyone for a donation” and will limit individual contributions, which can be as large as $20,000 under state law, to no more than $500.
“I’m not going to owe anyone anything,” Michels said. “I don’t give a rip about the lobbyists, the special interests, the PACs.”
Michels is co-owner of Michels Corp., a family-owned international energy and infrastructure construction business. He last ran for office in 2004, when he lost to Russ Feingold in the U.S. Senate race.
Speaking with conservative radio host Jay Weber Monday, Michels confirmed he had recently met with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago and he “would certainly welcome any support” from the former president. Trump has not formally endorsed a candidate in the race.
Michels said he aims to “turn Madison upside down” in a campaign video posted online over the weekend.
“The radical left, they’re destroying everything we love about America,” Michels said. “And too many establishment Republicans, they’re along for the ride. I’m not some career politician, I’m a self-made businessman who doesn’t give a rip about the special interests or their money.”
Kleefisch — a former television journalist who served eight years as lieutenant governor under Scott Walker and who strategists say is the odds-on favorite to win the nomination — has primarily focused her campaign on unseating Evers.
Nicholson’s campaign has included a focus on challenging what he has dubbed the “Madison machine” of established Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who earlier this year urged Nicholson not to run while deeming Kleefisch the best choice to defeat Evers.
Nicholson ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, but lost in the Republican primary to Leah Vukmir, who went on to lose to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison.
Ramthun, who has falsely claimed that Trump won Wisconsin’s 2020 election, has drawn praise from the former president, who called the state lawmaker in early December to thank him for his efforts to overturn the election, according to Rolling Stone. Trump has continued to falsely claim he won the 2020 election, despite recounts, audits and court decisions affirming that President Joe Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes.
A February Marquette Law School Poll found that among likely GOP primary voters, 30% support Kleefisch, 8% support Nicholson, 5% support Ramthun and 54% have no preference. Half of respondents said they haven’t heard or have no opinion of Kleefisch, compared with 80% for Nicholson and 86% for Ramthun.
The other Republicans in the race have remained quiet on Michels since he entered the field, but Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement Monday the field of GOP candidates represents “a case of quantity over quality.”
“Tim Michels is the fourth candidate to enter this mess of a nomination fight — and the Republicans still don’t have a single candidate who isn’t too divisive for Wisconsin,” Wikler said.
Michels served on Kleefisch’s advocacy group, the 1848 Project, a nonprofit she launched in 2020 leading up to her gubernatorial campaign. The group put out a list of more than 50 policy ideas last year dubbed “The Forward Agenda.” They include a few that have riled up the party’s base recently, such as banning critical race theory from classrooms and shifting responsibility for election rules from the Wisconsin Elections Commission to the state Legislature.
“A lot of people have questions about the last election. So do I,” Michels told Weber. “We have to have, in Wisconsin, in any state, in the United States, fair and transparent elections.”
Michels said he would also support GOP efforts to ban private funding for administering elections, expand private school vouchers and prohibit instruction about systemic racism. He also said he would back anti-abortion bills and efforts to limit firearm restrictions — measures Evers has adamantly opposed.
Michels also defended his previous stance on state labor laws, a topic that could result in GOP criticism as the primary election heats up. Michels Corp. was a member of the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, which fought Wisconsin’s “right to work” law, which prohibits employers and unions from requiring the payment of monthly union dues by nonunion members at unionized worksites. The law was passed in 2015 under the Walker/Kleefisch administration.
Michels told Weber he supports right-to-work laws, but added he also works with unions. Michels Corp. is also a member of the Construction Business Group, which partners with International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. The union launched ads in 2018 targeting Walker over the former governor’s level of transportation funding. The ads accused Walker of failing to properly address potholes, which were dubbed “Scottholes.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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