Commentary

Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Michels is no political ‘outsider’

April 26, 2022 6:30 am
A basket filled with campaign buttons with the Republican symbol GOP

Republican lapel buttons. Photo by U.S. Consulate General Barcelona via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

With multimillionaire construction company owner Tim Michels’ announcement Monday that he’s joining the Republican primary for governor, yet another “outsider” is vying to “take back” Wisconsin from the “radical left” as well as “establishment Republicans.”

Michels, who challenged former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold unsuccessfully in 2004, then dropped out of sight, is running against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Rep. Tim Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), and former Marine Kevin Nicholson. Like all of them he has professed his loyalty to former President Donald Trump, supported the false claim that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud and is avidly pursuing culture war topics, seeking to make abortion illegal in Wisconsin and taking a stand against the supposedly anti-white, pro-LGBTQ agenda in Wisconsin public schools. Who, you might ask, are the establishment types this crowd is running against?

It could have been former Gov. Tommy Thompson — the state’s longest-serving governor. But Tommy is out. The rest of the candidates are all running as fight-the-power rebels. Apparently Republican primary voters,  having drunk too much election-conspiracy KoolAid, are in no mood for the candidate Wisconsinites would most like to have a beer with. The next most establishment candidate is rightwing radical Rebecca Kleefisch.

“Michels’ entry mostly signals a sense of discontent among Republicans with frontrunner Rebecca Kleefisch,” says University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden. “She is the leader for the nomination in terms of traditional indicators such as fundraising, visibility, and conservative credentials. In an earlier political era, her connections to Scott Walker and success as a statewide candidate would have made her a no-brainer for the nomination. Many in the GOP are now pining for someone who will challenge the party establishment and take on other familiar institutions.”

But, Burden adds, “There is an irony in this posture because the four Republican candidates are in agreement on the big issues, are all showing unwavering support for former President Trump, and want to prioritize many of the same issues such as new election rules and limiting how teachers can cover racial issues in the classroom. Aside from Ramthun’s single-minded focus on the 2020 election, the policy disagreements among the candidates are minor.”

Michels agrees that there’s not much daylight between his positions and those of the other GOP contenders. “I don’t think people will find much difference in our issues,” he said of his opponents on Monday, during his first interview after he announced, with conservative radio host Jay Weber of WISN 1130.

“The difference,” he said, “is I’m an outsider.”

But what does that mean?

Ramthun and Nicholson are explicitly running against the party leadership, attacking Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his preferred candidate, Kleefisch, on the grounds that Vos should have performed the legally impossible feat of recalling Wisconsin’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden.

Michels managed to dodge Weber’s question about whether he is in the Vos/Kleefisch wing or the “Toss Vos” crowd. He professes to have great respect for everyone.

He did say, however, that he would sign the raft of bills passed by the Republican Legislature and vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers that aimed to clean up Wisconsin’s nonexistent problem of voter fraud.

“A lot of people have questions about the last election,” he told Weber. “So do I.”

He went on to enumerate the measures he would support as governor, including banning “Zuckerbucks” — rightwing shorthand for the grants awarded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, partially supported by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that helped municipalities across the state run elections during the pandemic, and which have not, despite enormous attention focused on the grants, been shown to have anything to do with influencing the outcome of the election. Likewise Michels came out against “illegal ballot harvesting” — i.e. rules allowing absentee ballots to be deposited in dropboxes or turned in by a voter’s spouse.

As part of his pitch that he is an “outsider” Michels makes much of his business background. “I’m not a career politician,” he says. And he proudly declares that he won’t take any money from PACs or special interests.

But he has a long record of giving big donations to high-level Republican politicians as part of a sophisticated, coordinated effort. In 2018, members of the Michels family gave checks ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 to the campaign of former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, according to a review of campaign finance reports by the group One Wisconsin Now. (The state-based research and communications hub for progressives has been renamed A Better Wisconsin Together.) Between July and August leading up to the election he lost to current AG Josh Kaul, Schimel collected $50,000 from Tim Michels and his immediate family members  — making the Michels family responsible for 35% of all the money Schimel raised from individuals.

“I’m curious if he can make his ‘outsider’ act stick,” says Mike Browne of A Better Wisconsin Together.

“He has a pretty savvy donation history, like supporting co-chairs of JFC, investing in targeted GOP races, and it seems the family gets together from time to time to write big checks to the same candidate(s) on the same day.” (The donation checks from the Michels family to Schimel were all written on Aug. 23, 2018. An earlier round of big checks to Schimel from the Michels family were all written on New Year’s Eve 2013.)

“In addition to his and his family/business political giving,” Browne adds, “there’s the whole charade around refusing to take money from lobbyists, as a guy who has been involved with the biggest corporate special interest lobbying outfit in the state as a WMC board member.”

Michels was elected to the 53-member board of directors of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s powerful business lobby, in 2019. His donations to Republican candidates and his membership on the board of the state’s most powerful lobby group is directly tied to his business interests.

Michels Corporation, the largest construction firm in Wisconsin, gets a lot of money through public contracts. The firm was chosen by then-Gov. Scott Walker to do significant work on Foxconn and has also worked on the Keystone Pipeline and made a bid to construct Trump’s border wall, which Michels says he “would have been proud to build.” 

All in all, Tim Michels told Weber, his company has made about $1.3 billion from road contracts since 2008. In September 2018, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposé found that the Michels’ corporation was part of a group of contractors that were double paid for construction work on a section of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange during Walker’s administration.

Alarms raised by the federal government, which withdrew federal funds because of the overpayment, resulted in promises by the Walker administration to fix the “error,” but, according to the Journal Sentinel, the state unaccountably reversed itself and paid the full amount, leaving state taxpayers on the hook for more than $400,000 for work that was never done. Weber only briefly alluded to that awkward situation in the interview Monday, allowing Michels to wave it away by saying all his contracts were “transparent” and his company’s low bids have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the years.

Weber compares Michels favorably to Trump — a non-politician with business experience who is so rich he doesn’t need to get into politics except to shake things up.

Michels favored Weber with a description of his recent pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. “The rumors are true,” he said. “We went to Mar-a-Lago about three weeks ago.” The meeting went “fabulously,” he said, describing an hour spent talking with Trump about building and pipeline work. “I would certainly welcome any support from President Trump,” Michels said, adding, ruefully that Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” was still unfulfilled.  “I wish he was president today,” Michels said. “Four more years of President Trump might have got the job done.”

He concluded by promising never to ask for a dime from anyone. “I’m gonna be an independent governor,” he said.

And if you believe that, I have some work on the Zoo Interchange I’d like to sell you. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

MORE FROM AUTHOR