MADISON — Days after saying that running negative ads is “just bad policy” and that politicians who do it are "losing,” the Wisconsin Republican candidate for governor backed by Donald Trump has launched his first attack ad against his primary opponent.
Tim Michels launched the ad this week, a blistering attack against Rebecca Kleefisch that faults her not backing Trump in 2016 and brands her as “the ultimate Madison insider.” Kleefisch, who is backed by former Vice President Mike Pence, is a former two-term lieutenant governor.
The winner of Tuesday's primary will advance to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in what is expected to be one of the hardest-fought elections in the country this year, with implications for the 2024 presidential race in this swing state. Evers has stood as a block to the Republican-controlled Legislature as it has attempted to change election laws and enact a host of other conservative policy items.
The Michels ad, circulated Thursday by the Democratic Governors Association, began airing earlier this week, after Michels said in a televised town hall that “I’ve never had a negative ad run by my campaign in this race.
“And the reason is we’ve never had a single piece of business by talking bad about the competition,” said Michels, who co-owns energy and pipeline construction company Michels Corp. "And the reason is, it’s just bad policy, and if you get a reputation of doing that in my industry … people immediately disrespect you.”
That wasn't the first time Michels took a stand against negative ads. Back in July, after Kleefisch launched the first in a series of attack ads against Michels, he came out strongly against it.
“When politicians are shocked to find themselves losing, they go negative out of desperation," Michels said on July 6. “So it is sad that the former Lieutenant Governor has decided to go negative by falling in line with politics as usual.”
Michels spokesperson Chris Walker defended the campaign going negative, saying Thursday it was in response to spots being run by Kleefisch and her supporters.
“The tone of the campaign has been set by her after weeks and millions spent lying about and attacking Tim,” Walker said. “When your opponent does that for weeks on end, it can't go unanswered forever.”
Kleefisch's spokesperson Alec Zimmerman said Michels going negative was a sign that Kleefisch “has all the momentum.”
The attack ad comes amid a blitz toward the election, with Pence campaigning Wednesday for Kleefisch, calling her a “proven conservative.” Kleefisch served as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Scott Walker and has amassed endorsements from Walker, legislative leaders, dozens of Republican lawmakers and others.
Michels is running as the outsider candidate, touting his Trump endorsement. Trump has scheduled a Friday rally in Waukesha County, just three miles from where Pence appeared for Kleefisch, as part of a final push.
Michels, in his ad, notes that Kleefisch did not back Trump in 2016. She, along with Walker, supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who won Wisconsin's primary that year. Cruz has endorsed Kleefisch this year. After Trump became the nominee, Kleefisch supported him in 2016 and 2020.
Michels' position on Trump also shifted this week. On Monday, at the town hall, he refused to commit to backing Trump if he ran for president in 2024. But less than 24 hours later, Michels reversed himself.
The most recent Marquette Law School poll, released in late June, showed Michels and Kleefisch running tight with one another.