Tim Michels defeats Rebecca Kleefisch, advances to Wisconsin governor's race against Democrat Tony Evers

·4 min read

WAUKESHA - Tim Michels emerged from a four-way primary Tuesday with the Republican nomination for governor, easily prevailing against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in a three-month sprint of a campaign during which the construction executive spent $10 million of his own money and earned the backing of former President Donald Trump.

Republican voters in Wisconsin rejected the establishment of their party for the last decade by backing a candidate for governor who said he would consider overturning the results of the last presidential election over Scott Walker's lieutenant who had the backing of the most prominent business and law enforcement groups.

Michels, co-owner of the state's largest construction company Michels Corp., defeated his opponents a day after federal agents raided Trump's Florida resort — an investigation Michels called on his supporters to use as a reason to get to the polls.

Tim Michels claims victory in the Republican primary for governor Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at Tuscan Hall Venue and Catering in Waukesha, Wis. He will face Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in the general election.
Tim Michels claims victory in the Republican primary for governor Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at Tuscan Hall Venue and Catering in Waukesha, Wis. He will face Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in the general election.

In a victory speech to supporters in Waukesha, Michels thanked Trump for his support, comparing the two as businessmen who didn't need to run for office but wanted to "drain the swamp" of long-time politicians.

"He knows that we need to have new leadership in Madison, and he sees a lot of similarities," Michels, 60, said. "He wanted to drain the swamp and we found out it's a really big swamp."

Michels will face Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers in November. Evers will officially launch his campaign Wednesday morning in Madison.

To supporters on Tuesday, Michels said he would keep "hardworking taxpayers" in mind and vowed to work with Democrats, including Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley, to accomplish goals to improve the state without comprising "my conservative principles."

“They’ve been left behind by the Democratic Party, which just wants to focus on the social issues,” Michels said of voters.

Michels has called for abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission and replacing it with a state elections board with members from all eight congressional districts, leaving open the door to a board controlled by Republicans given the makeup of the state's congressional map. He also has said he will expand private school vouchers and provide incentives to attract more police officers.

Wisconsin Republican governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch talks to supporters prior to speaking at the Cornerstone Sports Pub in Oconomowoc on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.
Wisconsin Republican governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch talks to supporters prior to speaking at the Cornerstone Sports Pub in Oconomowoc on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

In a concession speech at an event in Oconomowoc, Kleefisch urged supporters to get behind Michels despite the bitter primary fight with Michels that involved even her daughter's homecoming photo.

"The fight now is truly against Tony Evers, and the liberals who want to take away our way of life," Kleefisch said from her campaign gathering.

RELATED: 2022 Wisconsin election results

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Michels and Kleefisch were locked in an effectively tied race in the final weeks of their campaigns, with the latest poll showing them within less than one percentage point of each other. Ultimately, about 5% separated the two in the final result.

Despite Kleefisch's more than 12-year political history and endorsements from key groups like the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Tavern League of Wisconsin and law enforcement advocates, prominent Republicans like former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Kleefisch had a hard time connecting with anti-establishment Republicans that have secured the party's base.

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She also didn’t secure her party’s endorsement in May, receiving 55% of delegates' votes at the party convention, just shy of the 60% threshold required under party rules to receive an endorsement.

Evers' campaign manager Cassi Fenili called Michels an extreme choice for Republicans.

“After a scorched earth primary that’s seen constant attacks and a dizzying race to the radical right, the Republican Party has chosen the most extreme and divisive nominee possible, one that will tell Donald Trump anything just to keep his endorsement," Fenili said in a statement.

"From abortion and voting rights, to gun safety and public education — Tim Michels has staked out the most extreme positions possible, with the goal of dividing our state and pitting neighbors against one another."

State Rep. Sara Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents a suburban Milwaukee Assembly district, will join Evers on the Democratic ticket after prevailing in her primary race for lieutenant governor. State Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, will join Michels as his running mate.

RELATED: Democrat Sara Rodriguez and Republican Roger Roth win lieutenant governor primaries to join governor tickets

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Molly Beck and Corrinne Hess can be reached at molly.beck@jrn.com and chess@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter at @MollyBeck and @CorriHess

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin election results: Tim Michels wins the primary for governor