MADISON – Wealthy construction executive Tim Michels on Thursday landed the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, giving the newest candidate in the Republican primary for governor an edge he needs to compete in a four-way primary that includes the state’s well-known former lieutenant governor .
With his endorsement of Michels, Trump inserts himself into the competitive primary with two months to go before Republican voters head to the polls and just after his preferred candidate lost in another battleground state, Georgia.
“Wisconsin needs a Governor who will Stop Inflation, Uphold the Rule of Law, strengthen our Borders (we had the strongest borders in history just two years ago, now we have the weakest!) and End the well-documented Fraud in our Elections, “Trump said in a statement late Thursday.
“Tim Michels is the best candidate to deliver meaningful solutions to these problems, and he will produce jobs like no one else can even imagine.”
Just hours after Trump issued his endorsement, Michels modified a television ad to showcase the former president’s backing. In the ad, Michels promotes his family’s construction company Michels Corp.’s effort in 2017 to secure a bid to build part of wall on the US border with Mexico, and pledges to block bills that would allow non-US citizens to obtain drivers licenses gold tuition subsidies.
Trump’s decision to back Michels is a blow to form Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who is polling ahead of her primary rivals but failed to secure enough support at the state Republican convention last month to win the party’s endorsement.
Michels, co-owner of the Brownsville-based Michels Corporation and US Army veteran, entered the GOP primary for governor in late April and nearly 20 years after his last statewide campaign — a 2004 loss to then-US Sen. Russ Feingold.
Trump’s endorsement will effectively introduce Michels to the Republican faithful. Earlier this month, less than 4% of delegates at the state GOP convention said they backed him for governor while nearly 60% said they preferred Kleefisch.
“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 about the endorsement.
Candidate Kevin Nicholson said while Trump has the pulse of the GOP base, “the race to replace Tony Evers as governor isn’t going to be won by endorsements.”
“Since the day we launched our campaign, I’ve been the conservative outsider in this race. That was true then, and that’s true today,” he said.
The backing of Michels from Trump comes a week after Michels adopted a more aggressive stance toward the 2020 election, reversing himself and calling for the abolition of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Like other Republican candidates for governor, Michels now wants to dissolve the elections agency that has become a symbol for Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.
His about-face on the commission came days after he and other candidates for governor addressed delegates at a state Republican convention who clamored for discarding the agency.
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement the endorsement by Trump “only deepens the alarming division and extremism of the Wisconsin Republican Party.”
“Tim Michels has now been given the green light to hit the accelerator on the campaign he was already running — one that embraces election conspiracy theories and divisive policies like banning abortions without exceptions, instituting a ban on same-sex marriage, and defunding public education .”
Trump endorses Michels after publicly praising state Rep. Tim Ramthun in 2021, a few months before Ramthun launched a campaign for governor. Trump commended Ramthun for attempting to put forward a resolution to decertify the 2020 election, which is impossible.
Ramthun did not return phone calls Thursday.
Michels, Kleefisch and Ramthun traveled to Trump’s Florida resort Mar-A-Lago earlier this year to visit or be interviewed for a potential endorsement that has become coveted currency in GOP primaries across the country in 2022 for candidates seeking to secure support among the party’s grassroots .
In Wisconsin, Trump is popular among the GOP base but not broadly, according to recent Marquette University Law School polling.
Among Republicans surveyed in May, 49% said they were more likely to support a candidate whom Trump has endorsed. Forty percent said his endorsement would make no difference to them. Another 11% said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate backed by Trump.
Overall, 61% of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of Trump while 35% approved of the former president.
The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will run against Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers in the general election.
With massive personal wealth, Michels has the ability to pour millions into a short primary campaign which he began with little name recognition in Wisconsin. He owns homes in Waukesha County, Connecticut and New York City but spends the majority of each year in Wisconsin, according to state tax records.
In 2020, he owed $3.7 million in state income taxes — an amount that suggests he reported income of tens of millions of dollars that year.
Since 2010, he’s owed more than $1 million in state income taxes five other times, records show.
Recent years have been particularly good for Michels’ bottom line. He owed $1.7 million in 2018 and $1.9 million in 2019, according to records from the state Department of Revenue.
Contact Molly Beck at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.