Road company magnate spent more than $10 million of his personal wealth to top a once-popular former lieutenant governor.
[This story has been updated to include details on Michels deleting then re-posting Trump’s endorsement, reaction from Evers and Vos, and other election results.]
Tim Michels, a wealthy Connecticut businessman with no elected experience, scattershot Wisconsin residency, and the endorsement of a twice-impeached and legally-challenged former president will be the Republican Party nominee attempting to unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November, after winning in primary elections that also set up November contests for US Senate and other statewide and legislative offices.
Tuesday’s primary win by Michels—who reportedly spent at least $10 million of his own funds in his brief but rapid rise—brings a once-high-flying Rebecca Kleefisch, the former lieutenant governor, crashing to earth as her party embraces the extremism that nearly brought down Wisconsin’s Assembly speaker on Tuesday as well.
With nearly 99% of the estimated vote counted, Michels held a 47%-42% lead over Kleefisch, with a margin of about 37,000 votes out of nearly 700,000 cast in the primary. Kleefisch topped Michels in the counties around Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and Wausau. As a percentage of each county’s vote, however, Michels trounced Kleefisch across more than 60 other counties.
As expected, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the Democratic primary for US Senate and will face incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who is seeking the third term he promised six years ago not to pursue.
There were a handful of primaries in legislative districts, but none had the attention or Election Night drama of the 63rd Assembly District, where Speaker Robin Vos narrowly defeated right-wing challenger Adam Steen by about 250 votes out of some 10,000 total Republican voters in the Racine area.
While Vos has tried to cast doubts on the certified results of the 2020 presidential election and even authorized a costly probe by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, he was not seen by supporters of former President Donald Trump as aggressive enough in trying to overturn the will of Wisconsin voters. Gableman himself supported Vos opponent Adam Steen.
Asked about Gableman afterward, Vos called him “an embarrassment to the state” and indicated he would call Assembly Republicans to caucus as early as next week to consider terminating the alleged investigation.
Both Michels and Kleefisch falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged, a lie Trump has pushed in an effort to overturn his loss to Joe Biden. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
Michels has said decertifying the results of the 2020 contest was not a priority but he also said “everything will be on the table.” He supports other changes to voting and elections, including dismantling the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.
In the week leading up to the primary, Michels was accused of flip-flopping on whether he would endorse Trump if he ran for president in 2024. On Tuesday morning, language about Trump’s endorsement disappeared from Michels’ website but was reposted shortly after the removal had been noted on social media by a New York Times reporter.
While Michels’ message will feature “tough on crime” rhetoric, he did not provide any tough talk about the prospect that Trump may have broken the law. Michels used the term “overzealous prosecution” to describe Monday’s execution of a search warrant by federal agents at Trump’s Florida estate.
Michels will face questions about his own estate during the 90-day general election campaign. It was reported by a conservative news outlet in May that Michels has spent much of the past nine years living in both a New York City penthouse and a $17 million mansion in Connecticut, where his children attended high school. Walking a precise legal line, Michels reacted by claiming he maintained Wisconsin residency for at least 183 days a year for eight of the past nine years—for voting and tax filing purposes. His wife claimed their Connecticut home as her address when making a campaign contribution less than a year ago.
Michels, co-owner of Wisconsin’s largest construction company that has done many hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded work on state roads, said while he would step away from operating the company, he would expect the family business to continue seeking state business—including contracts Michels would have to sign off on as governor.
Far from the political “outsider” image he has been attempting to cultivate, Michels is a familiar presence on Republican donor lists and has run in a statewide campaign before—as the Republican nominee who lost the 2004 US Senate race to former Sen. Russ Feingold.
The speedy rise of Michels’ campaign over Kleefisch, a popular party veteran, mirrors the 2010 campaign of Sen. Ron Johnson, whose late entry into the race with a large personal checkbook gave him an immediate edge over establishment candidates.
Trump—who, like Michels, crafts the image of a self-made business success despite inheriting companies started by their fathers—praised the new gubernatorial nominee as an “incredible success story.” Tuesday’s result represents another Trump victory in a proxy war between himself and former Vice President Mike Pence, who endorsed Kleefisch. Trump’s preferred candidates won races last week for governor and Senate in Arizona.
In Wisconsin, the lieutenant governor’s post is elected separately rather than having the gubernatorial candidates choose their running mate. Michels will be on the ballot alongside Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), who won in a three-candidate GOP primary. And with Barnes running for Senate, Evers will now be running with state Assembly Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield), who handily won Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Evers and Rodriguez met for breakfast Wednesday morning at a Madison diner. Evers reacted to the now-public spat between Vos and Gableman by saying the Speaker “needs to say we have to move on. And if he doesn’t do that I feel like we’ll be talking about that election for the next 20 years.” As Michels was claiming victory, Evers’ campaign released a statement calling him “the most extreme and divisive nominee possible, one that will tell Donald Trump anything just to keep his endorsement.”
Evers has made voting and elections a focus of his own campaign, telling voters he’s the only candidate who will defend democracy and “we are that close to not having our vote count in the state of Wisconsin.”
Incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul will be challenged in November by Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, who defeated two fellow Republicans in the primary. Toney has focused on his actions related to claims of voter fraud, which included bringing a felony charge against a woman when she mistakenly used an incorrect address while registering to vote—for Trump.
Democratic Secretary of State Doug LaFollette handily fended off a primary challenge and will defend his office and its minimal duties against a challenge from Assembly Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) who won a three-candidate primary. She will be the standard bearer for Republican efforts to take the office that they previously downsized significantly and build it up into an authoritative replacement for the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.
With state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski falling short in her US Senate primary with Barnes, the open seat will be sought in November by Fitchburg Mayor Aaron Richardson, who defeated two other Democrats, and Republican primary winner John Leiber.
In western Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, state Sen. Brad Pfaff carried the areas around La Crosse on his way to topping three other candidates as Democrats try to hold the seat of retiring US Rep. Ron Kind. Pfaff will face Derrick Van Orden, who was insurrection-adjacent on Jan. 6, 2021, shortly after narrowly losing to Kind in 2020.
—The Associated Press contributed to this story.