Tim Michels Enters Race for Governor

 Joe Murray, WRA director of political and governmental affairs  |    June 06, 2022
Tim Michels Enters Race

For Tim Michels, this is round two. Michels ran as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004 and was defeated by then-U.S. Senator Russ Feingold. Michels, co-owner of the Michels Corporation, recently entered the GOP primary for Wisconsin governor 18 years after his last statewide campaign.

Since the end of January, three “anti-establishment” candidates have joined the gubernatorial race: business consultant and former Marine Kevin Nicholson; state Rep. Timothy Ramthun; and Tim Michels, former U.S. Army Ranger and construction company executive based in Brownsville, Wisconsin. These three candidates all entered the race months after former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch announced her candidacy in September 2021.

Prior to January, Kleefisch had been the odds-on favorite to capture the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Since that time, the Republican primary field has quadrupled and now offers the three outsider/anti-establishment candidates. Kleefisch is clearly considered the “conservative establishment” candidate.

In a midterm election with the political winds favoring Republicans, Evers has his work cut out for him. He does, however, have a few advantages that incumbents typically enjoy: 

  • Incredibly strong fundraising
  • Near-universal name identification
  • No primary opponent to worry about

In a “purple state” like Wisconsin where top-of-the-ticket elections are often won or lost by one percentage point or less, Evers will be a formidable incumbent to beat.

But each of the four GOP candidates have strengths and weaknesses that will influence the outcome for the Republican nomination. Here’s a quick overview.

Tim Michels

Strengths: Michels has personal wealth, and he is not shy about using it to build his name identification and image. Having entered the race for governor only four months before the August 9 primary election, Michels has no choice but to use his significant personal wealth to pursue the GOP nomination. Unlike Kleefisch or Nicholson who have a grassroots network in place, Michels has spent his time running a large construction company — not campaigning for political office. For Michels, money is the great equalizer.

Michels’ 12 years as an Army Ranger will be an asset as well. Candidates who serve their country in the military have had much success in recent election cycles, and Michels has made his military service a focal point in his advertising.

Weaknesses: Getting into the GOP primary this late means he will have less time or opportunity to organize and execute a grassroots strategy to identify and turn out his voters in the primary. The Michels campaign will have to rely on a top-down, big-dollar advertising campaign and hope it can overcome what will likely be better grassroots efforts by his three GOP primary opponents.

Rebecca Kleefisch

Strengths: Kleefisch started this primary election as the front-runner. She jumped into the race in September 2021 and had the field all to herself for five months. Prior to her formal announcement, Kleefisch had been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run since November 2018, when she and former Gov. Scott Walker were narrowly defeated by Evers. Over the last four years, Kleefisch has released her “Forward Agenda” detailing her policy agenda if she is elected, spent one year recruiting candidates for Assembly Republicans, and helped elect candidates for local office in the 2022 spring elections. Perhaps most importantly, Kleefisch served as lieutenant governor for eight years, holding statewide office and working with former Gov. Scott Walker on numerous policy reforms that she can point to as proof of what she can and will do if elected.

Weaknesses: Kleefisch is the conservative “establishment” candidate in this primary, and for some in the GOP rank and file, establishment is another way of saying the “insider status quo.” These Republican voters prefer an outsider, populist alternative. The anti-establishment block in the GOP grassroots believe that Madison-based insiders control the political process in a way that does not respect the wishes or opinions of the more populist, reform-minded members of the party. These voters will be voting for one of the other three candidates.

Kevin Nicholson

Strengths: As a business consultant and former Marine, Nicholson has a pretty solid profile for a statewide GOP candidate. As the founder and volunteer president of No Better Friend, a conservative 501 (c)(4) organization dedicated to conservative solutions to problems and expanding the GOP movement, he has a ready-made grassroots network that should be a political asset in the GOP primary this year. Nicholson, like Kleefisch, should be able to mobilize his grassroots network to his advantage heading into the August 9 primary. He also has one advantage over two of his three opponents: Nicholson has the full financial support of GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein. Uihlein has pledged to spend lavishly on behalf of Nicholson this year, just like he did in his 2018 race for U.S. Senate. This will help Nicholson compete financially with Michels’ deep pockets and Kleefisch’s fundraising head start.

Weaknesses: Kevin Nicholson jumped into the race for governor late in January after Sen. Ron Johnson announced he would run for reelection for a third term. It’s widely known that Nicholson’s first choice was to run for U.S. Senate again, but not if Johnson ran. To some in the grassroots, the governor’s office is the “second choice” for Nicholson vs. Kleefisch who has made running for governor her first and only choice for four years. Another potential issue for Nicholson is his status as the former president of the College Democrats of America two decades ago. For some in the GOP, this is a fatal and disqualifying fact. In the tribal politics of today, switching parties is unacceptable. Finally, the last issue that may be difficult for Nicholson to overcome is Michels and his deep pockets. Until Michels entered the race, Nicholson seemed to have the spending upper hand with Uihlein’s millions. Now, he must compete with Michels’ checkbook.

Tim Ramthun

Strengths: When Ramthun entered the race in February, he was the only candidate who called for “an independent full forensic physical cyber audit for the 2020 election” in Wisconsin. This endeared Ramthun to pro-Trump supporters who refuse to believe that President Joe Biden carried Wisconsin in the 2020 presidential election. Ramthun will likely have a very committed block of voters in the August 9 primary election.

Weaknesses: Ramthun is a single-issue candidate. He has called on the Wisconsin Legislature to “decertify” the Wisconsin 2020 presidential election despite there being no legal process to do so, according to constitutional and nonpartisan attorneys across the state. While Ramthun is likely to maintain the support of many pro-Trump voters who agree with him on this issue, he isn’t likely to expand his base of support or be a major factor in the gubernatorial primary. His lack of overall fundraising will also keep him from seriously competing in the August 9 primary election. 

Watch for more information on this election and others in future issues of Wisconsin Real Estate Magazine.

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