WISCONSIN — Donald Trump's endorsement of construction company co-owner Tim Michels in Wisconsin's hotly contested governor's race threatens to further divide Republicans and upend the race less than two months before the primary.
Trump's backing of Michels, a late entry into the race, comes after former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has spent years laying the groundwork for a run and building support, including winning key endorsements from the state's powerful business and manufacturing lobbying group and former Gov. Scott Walker.
Kleefisch won 55% of the vote from delegates at last month's Wisconsin Republican Party convention, short of the 60% needed for an official endorsement but far ahead of the nearly 4% that Michels got.
The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will advance to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Michels has been able to tap his personal wealth to spend millions on television ads since he got into the race in April. Trump's endorsement will only further elevate Michels' profile, and hours after he got the backing Michels modified one of his ads to highlight the former president's support. Michels previously ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, losing to Democrat Russ Feingold, and since then has remained largely out of the public spotlight.
Both Kleefisch and Michels, as well as state Rep. Tim Ramthun, had traveled to Trump's resort in Florida to meet with him and secure the endorsement. But Trump late Thursday threw his support behind Michels.
It came two weeks after Michels said he supported doing away with Wisconsin's bipartisan elections commission, a change from his earlier position calling for reforms. The commission's actions during the 2020 election that President Joe Biden won by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin has come under intense criticism from Republicans, especially those who believe Trump's lie that he won the state.
Biden's victory has been upheld through numerous court rulings, recounts, a nonpartisan audit and a review by a conservative law firm. There is no evidence of widespread fraud.
Trump, in his endorsement, said Wisconsin needs a governor who will stop inflation, strengthen the border and end election fraud. He said Michels is an “America First Conservative” who will support Second Amendment gun rights, honor law enforcement and stand against the “Woke Mob trying to destroy our Country.”
Trump also said that Michels will "produce jobs like no one else can even imagine.”
Michels, in a statement, called Trump's endorsement a “tremendous boost” to his campaign.
In the Michels campaign ad where he notes Trump's endorsement, he talks about his family's construction company, Michels Corp., working in 2017 to build part of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Michels also promises to stop a bill that would allow non-U.S. citizens to obtain drivers licenses or tuition subsidies, measures that are highly unlikely to be passed by Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Legislature.
Kleefisch tried to spin losing the endorsement to her advantage, saying, “If I know one thing about President Trump, it’s that he likes winners, and I’m the only person in this race who has won statewide — not once, but four times."
She's referring to her statewide primary win in the lieutenant governor's race in 2010, two election wins as Walker's running mate and her victory in the 2011 recall election.
A fourth candidate, business consultant Kevin Nicholson, downplayed the news by saying he remains the outsider candidate and the race to replace Evers “isn’t going to be won by endorsements.”
Trump has a mixed record with endorsements nationally and his election record in Wisconsin is also mixed. He lost the state's Republican presidential primary in 2016 to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, before going on to narrowly win Wisconsin that November. He lost to Biden by a similar margin in 2020.
In a Marquette University Law School poll last month, 49% of Republican respondents said they were more likely to support a candidate whom Trump endorsed. Forty percent said his endorsement would make no difference. And 11% said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate backed by Trump.
Overall, 61% of poll respondents, including Democrats, had an unfavorable opinion of Trump while 35% approved.