Republican Michels launches campaign for Wisconsin governor (copy)

Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Michels speaks before an event Oct. 15, 2004, in Oshkosh, in this file photo. Michels launched his campaign for governor on Monday. 

Army veteran and construction magnate Tim Michels officially launched his campaign for Wisconsin governor on Monday, presenting himself as a political outsider who will bring business savvy to the office.

Michels, 59, is the fourth prominent Republican candidate to enter the race. He joins former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Marine veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun as they compete for the opportunity to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

"I’m a businessman and a veteran — not a politician," Michels said in a statement. "Holding office has not been a lifelong goal of mine. However, when I see the mess Tony Evers has created, I hear a call to serve and believe I have a duty to try to help get Wisconsin back on track. I know my proven, decisive, executive leadership experience is just what we need in Madison."

Michels is a co-owner of Michels Corporation, which was founded by his father in 1959 as a gas pipeline construction company. The company employs 8,000 people and builds "everything from subway tunnels to roads to pipelines to electrical transmission lines."

His last statewide campaign was in 2004, when Democrat Russ Feingold defeated him by 11 points in the U.S. Senate race. He also ran for the state Senate in 1998, losing to incumbent Scott Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald was elected to Congress in 2020).

In a statement announcing his candidacy, Michels said he plans to focus his campaign on the economy, education, public safety and election integrity.

"Everything we love about Wisconsin is under attack," Michels says in an ad released on Sunday. 

In the ad, Michels says he served "God, family and country" in the Army, but the media says "none of that matters anymore." He describes taking the Pledge of Allegiance in school and taking an oath to serve the U.S. in the military service — "but today, people take a knee."

"When I was 9 years old, my dad handed me a shovel and put me to work. Nowadays, people get paid to sit on the couch," he continues. "And back then, if you called somebody lazy, it was a huge insult. But today, you get a pronoun wrong, and the liberals want your head."

In a Monday interview with conservative radio host on WISN-AM, Michels said he and his wife visited Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club several weeks ago to meet with the former president.

The meeting went "fabulously" and lasted more than an hour, Michels said, adding that he would "certainly welcome any support from President Trump."

Both Kleefisch and Ramthun have also met with Trump, as did former Gov. Tommy Thompson as he considered running his own campaign. 

Michels' campaign stands out with his refusal to accept any individual contributions of more than $500 (state law caps individual contributions at $20,000). He also pledged not to take any contributions from PACs or lobbyists, and said on WISN that he will not actively solicit contributions from anyone. 

Michels is equipped to pour millions of dollars into the race, and has shown in previous campaigns that he is willing to spend his own money. 

"I’m not going to owe anyone anything. I don’t give a rip about the lobbyists, the special interests, the PACs. I’m going to be an independent governor who’s going to stand solely for the people of Wisconsin," he said.

Democrats reacted to Michels' announcement by pegging him as an "extremist."

"Michels is just another greedy, out-of-touch Republican who would do more harm than good for Wisconsin," said Democratic Governors Association executive director Noam Lee in a statement.

Both Lee and Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler pointed to Michels' 2004 statements in favor of banning abortion without exceptions for cases of rape or incest and in opposition to gay marriage.

"The one clear distinction between Tim Michels and the other candidates is that he’s the only Republican running for governor who has already failed in two attempts to win public office," Wikler said.

Michels has faced some early skepticism from some in his own party. A recent post on the conservative site Wisconsin Right Now presented a list of 17 questions for Michels mostly focused on his positions on labor issues and his company's contracts with the state.

Michaels Corp. has had $1.3 billion worth of state government contracts since the mid-2000s.

The candidate defended that fact on WISN, arguing that "every single one of those contracts was won through a transparent, competitive bidding process where we were the low bidder."

In the same interview, Michels sought to clarify his stance on unions. Michels Corp. is a member of the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, which fought policies like the state's right-to-work law and the repeal of its prevailing wage law. 

Michels said he personally supports right-to-work, and his company doesn't force anyone to join the union. 

"People need to understand the differentiation between government employee unions and construction unions," he said.

Michels' first campaign event will be Monday afternoon in Brownsville, at his company's maintenance facility. The campaign is also advertising via radio, television, online and direct mail.

The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will face Evers on Nov. 8.

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