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ELECTION 2022 | GOVERNOR

Donald Trump endorses gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels ahead of contested GOP primary

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Former President Donald Trump on Thursday endorsed millionaire businessman Tim Michels in Wisconsin’s packed GOP gubernatorial primary — backing that political insiders believe could provide a significant boost as the August primary rapidly approaches.

Trump’s endorsement had remained a lingering question in the Republican primary for governor and has been described by some as the most important endorsement in the race due to the considerable sway the former president still holds over Republican voters. Several of the top GOP candidates in the race have been actively seeking Trump’s backing and made trips to Mar-a-Lago to meet with the former president.

In a statement issued Thursday, Trump described Michels as “a very successful businessman,” touting the millionaire co-owner of Brownsville-based Michels Corp. over Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who Trump said has been “an abject failure for the people of Wisconsin.”

“Tim Michels has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Trump said. “If Wisconsin has the wisdom to make Tim their next governor, it will have unprecedented success!”

“Tim is an America First Conservative who Supports our Second Amendment, Honors our Brave Law Enforcement and First Responders, and Stands Strongly against the Woke Mob trying to destroy our Country,” the former president continued.

Michels, who has pledged to largely self-fund his campaign efforts, announced his candidacy in April and is the most recent entry into the crowded field of GOP candidates vying to unseat Evers this November. The U.S. Army veteran last ran for office in 2004, when he lost to Russ Feingold in the U.S. Senate race.

“This is a tremendous boost to our efforts and a continuation of our astounding surge since I entered the race,” Michels said in a statement. “I am working every day to defeat Tony Evers and get Wisconsin back on the right track.”

Other Republicans in the race include former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, former Marine Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, of Campbellsport. Kleefisch, who served eight years under former Gov. Scott Walker, joined the race back in September, while Nicholson and Ramthun announced campaigns earlier this year.

While Kleefisch led the most recent Marquette Law School Poll in April with support from 32% of respondents, UW-La Crosse political science assistant professor Anthony Chergosky said Trump’s endorsement of Michels “completely shifts the race.”

“Let’s not sugar coat this, the Trump endorsement is a devastating blow for Rebecca Kleefisch,” Chergosky said. “It’s just another sign, though the biggest sign to date, of the weakness in her candidacy. There’s nothing good in this news for Rebecca Kleefisch — there’s only downside here for her.”

The winner of the gubernatorial primary will go on to face Evers on Nov. 8 in a high-stakes election for both parties.

“If I know one thing about President Trump, it’s that he likes winners, and I’m the only person in this race who has won statewide — not once, but four times,” Kleefisch said in a statement, referencing her wins in the 2010 GOP primary, 2010 general election, a 2012 recall vote and the 2014 general election. Kleefisch, along with Walker, lost to Evers in 2018.

“Our campaign will win this primary with our hardworking team of activists, volunteers and grassroots efforts,” Kleefisch added. “Then we will beat Tony Evers. And we will help Wisconsin families and workers win by securing our elections, making gas and groceries affordable again, restoring law and order, and putting parents back in charge of our schools.”

The Ramthun campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“President Trump has been effective at identifying many of our nation’s problems — but the race to replace Tony Evers as governor isn’t going to be won by endorsements; it will be decided by thousands of hard-working Wisconsinites on election day,” Nicholson said in a statement.

False claims

On Thursday, Trump said Michels would “end the well-documented Fraud in our Elections.” 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.

Trump’s endorsement comes just a week after Michels reversed his stance on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, an agency that has come under fire from Republicans for how the 2020 election was administered. After previously saying he would replace the six members of the bipartisan commission, Michels last week joined his fellow GOP gubernatorial challengers in calling for a complete dismantling of the agency.

Trump’s endorsement also comes after delegates attending the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s annual convention last month chose not to endorse a candidate in several statewide races, including for governor. The decision means the state party will not provide funding or resources to a preferred candidate until after a nominee is selected in the Aug. 9 primary.

While none of the gubernatorial candidates received enough votes to secure the party’s endorsement, Kleefisch easily won the majority of votes, coming in just about six percentage points short of the 60% needed for an endorsement. Ramthun, Nicholson and Michels each received less than 6%.

Chergosky said falling short of securing the party’s endorsement was “the canary in the coal mine for what is now developing” in the gubernatorial primary and Kleefisch’s inability to narrow the field of candidates despite securing big endorsements from Walker, Trump’s former White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life and the Milwaukee Police Association.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, endorsed Kleefisch in January. It previously backed Walker ahead of the 2010 primary.

But while some established Republicans in the state have backed Kleefisch’s campaign, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who said the former lieutenant governor was the party’s best choice to defeat Evers this fall, others remain skeptical. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who had mulled his own run for governor before eventually opting out, has not endorsed a candidate in the GOP primary.

Divided party

“The GOP is now more divided than ever — Wisconsinites can expect the primary fight to only get worse,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement.

“Trump’s divisive brand of politics paired with Michels’ extremist and out of touch views is a recipe for disaster. The irony is that Michels claimed he’s ‘tired of Republicans fighting in public’ — but sought the endorsement of America’s biggest bully anyway.”

UW-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said Trump’s endorsement “is likely to change the race fundamentally.”

“Trump remains the most visible and popular figure in the Republican Party, and all of the GOP candidates for governor have been trying to brand themselves in his image,” Burden said in an email. “Whatever their opponents might say, getting the endorsement essentially proves to Republican primary voters that Trump deems the candidate to be most faithful to his approach to politics.”

Former GOP strategist Brandon Scholz said Trump’s endorsement “certainly would introduce Michels to Trump supporters in various regions around the state,” but said it will take work to overcome efforts taken by Kleefisch, who formally joined the race in September.

“That gets balanced off against the amount of time Rebecca Kleefisch has invested in working at the grassroots and all up and down across the state and the positions she has developed on key issues facing Wisconsin,” Scholz said. “It’ll be an interesting tradeoff.”

‘Two-person race’

“The Republican primary for governor is really a two-person race. Rebecca Kleefisch has been working her tail off for quite some time, building a base, reaching out, and Tim Michels is a late entry but he’s spending a million dollars a week,” Scholz added.

Burden added that Trump’s endorsement comes at a time when the majority of Wisconsin conservatives remain undecided in the upcoming primary.

“An endorsement from Trump will make news and buzz within the party,” he said. “In addition, a candidate who has money to spend can leverage the endorsement instantly by touting it in advertising.”

How that endorsement plays out in the general election, when the eventual nominee faces Evers, remains to be seen, Burden added.

“Every candidate in the Republican primary will continue to support radical policies, like banning access to abortion, supporting Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and attacking public education,” Evers’ campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said. “Gov. Evers is focused on doing the right thing for our state and bringing people together to solve real problems, not caving to partisan radicals like Tim Michels, Rebecca Kleefisch, and the other candidates for governor.”

Trump’s record in Wisconsin is mixed. During the 2016 Republican primary he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz. He went on to win the state in what proved to be a crucial part of his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, before losing to Biden in 2020.

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The state Democratic Party said Sunday that construction company co-owner Tim Michels' failed to include his correct mailing address on the nominating forms, making thousands of signatures invalid. But Michels' campaign dismissed the complaint as frivolous.

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