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Poor, Poor Pitiful Tim Michels

The GOP candidate for Wisconsin governor has fallen into a capitulation spiral.
October 4, 2022
Poor, Poor Pitiful Tim Michels
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels greets guests at an election-night rally on August 09, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Michels, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican nomination against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Poor Tim Michels. The Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor wants, more than anything, to be a man of principle. He wants to stand for the things that he believes in.

But Michels, a construction industry executive who won the state GOP’s August primary with backing from former President Donald Trump, has a problem in this regard. Some of the things he believes in are wildly unpopular. And so he is forced to not actually stand for them while claiming he does. It’s complicated.

Take abortion. The resolutely pro-life candidate, who is challenging one-term Democratic incumbent Tony Evers in the November 8 election (the two are running neck-and-neck), has been saying for decades that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. This extreme position is now the legal status quo in Wisconsin, following the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

When Michels was the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in 2004 (he lost), I asked him in an interview what he would say to a woman who was impregnated as the result of rape. “I’d just feel so bad and sorry,” he answered, empathetically. “That’s just horrible.” But he would want the government to force this rape victim to give birth, so she could then hand the baby over to “one of the 25 couples” who are eager to adopt. All’s well that ends well.

I also asked Michels about terminating a pregnancy due to severe, multiple birth defects. Same answer. “Again, there’s a life there,” Michels replied, saying he saw no difference between performing an abortion in such a situation and murdering a child who happened to get “really sick.”

In fact, back then, Michels went even further in his advocacy of compulsatory reproduction than does the 1849 law now governing abortion access in Wisconsin, which contains an exemption in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Michels told me this was “a one-in-a-million occurrence” that he saw no need to make policy around. “It’s a hypothetical which just doesn’t exist.”

Michels now thinks it’s “okay” to allow abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, saying his position on this has “evolved over the years because I saw how important my wife was, being a mom to our other two children.” What a guy.

Still, at the September 6 campaign event at which he explained this change of heart, Michels vowed that he would not succumb to the tremendous amounts of pressure he said he was under to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, an exemption supported by 90 percent of Wisconsin voters in a recent poll.

“I’m principled and my wife and I, we know we have to answer to somebody higher than anybody on the face of the Earth,” he said, adding unequivocally:

I’m not gonna soften my stance on abortion. And . . . at this point anyhow, I think it would actually be a negative. I’m winning because people see a strong leader, a man of conviction, a man who doesn’t waffle, a man who doesn’t flip-flop. I’m gonna stick with what I know is right. And that’s what I’m gonna do until the bitter end.

The bitter end of Michels’s commitment to this principle came a little more than two weeks later, when he flip-flopped to say he would sign legislation that would create exemptions in the state’s abortion law in cases where a woman can prove to the satisfaction of the appropriate authorities that she is the victim of rape or incest. While Michels’s campaign stressed that his personal beliefs have not changed, he told a talk show host that he understands “this is a representative democracy.”

Poor Tim Michels. He wanted so much to not abandon his barbaric and cruel position, but his longing to be elected was just too strong.

Of course, the political maps in Wisconsin have been gerrymandered to where Republicans are virtually certain to remain firmly in charge of both houses of the state legislature. And, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has acknowledged, his fellow Republicans are highly unlikely to send legislation to Michels’s desk creating exceptions to the 1849 law for rape and incest. (It’s probably more likely that they would get rid of the exception to save the life of the mother—a goal that the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin described as a priority for his group while speaking at a Dane County Republican Party event in June, before the final Dobbs decision was handed down.)

Evers and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a fellow Democrat who is also up for re-election in November, are suing to overturn the 1849 law, arguing that it is superseded by a 1985 law that only prohibits abortions after the point of fetal viability. GOP lawmakers have countered by filing a motion seeking to have that lawsuit rejected.

And so the November 8 election will decide the future of reproductive choice in Wisconsin. But that’s not the only issue hanging in the balance. There is also the matter of whether the United States will survive as a representative democracy.

Over the past several years, the Republicans who control the state legislature have passed dozens of bills whose purpose is to disadvantage Democrats in elections; Gov. Evers has vetoed every one that crossed his desk. Michels has indicated that he, if elected, will sign these measures into law.

Like hundreds of Republicans across the country who will be on ballots this November 8, Michels has refused to accept that the 2020 election was free and fair, despite there being no evidence that it wasn’t. “I think what everybody is confident of is that there was problems with the election,” Michels has said, untruthfully and ungrammatically. “Nobody is sure what the extent of it was.”

Michels has also refused to commit to accepting the 2022 election results, should he not win. This is in keeping with the GOP strategy of sowing doubts about the electoral process, a strategy that former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican, has decried as dangerous.

“The reality is, it’s killing the Republican Party, it’s killing conservativism, and party leadership is failing—and failing badly—and it’s going to have repercussions,” Schultz told the Wisconsin State Journal. Only 13 percent of state Republicans say they are “very confident” in the 2020 election results, compared to 86 percent of Democrats, according to a September poll.

Michels secured Trump’s endorsement in early June, a week after he joined other state Republicans in calling for the elimination of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which, as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Molly Beck has noted, “has become a symbol for Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.” She referred to this as an “about-face.” Michels has at least two of them.

Originally, Michels had believed that the bipartisan commission, which Republican lawmakers created to replace a nonpartisan one, was “salvageable.” But he embraced the more extreme view that it was not partisan enough after feeling the heat at the state GOP convention. Michels spun this, characteristically, as an act of principle: “While this evolution may be uncommon in politics, I’m not a politician.”

State Republicans are poised to shift control of elections back to the office of the secretary of state—if the race’s Republican candidate, state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, manages to unseat the longtime Democratic incumbent, Doug La Follette.

With the GOP in charge of elections, Donald Trump (or whoever emerges as the Republican presidential nominee) will have a much better chance of winning the swing state of Wisconsin in 2024. Similar gubernatorial battles with implications for the next presidential election are playing out in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Poor Tim Michels. Time and again, his principled desire to be an immovable object has come up against the unstoppable force of political expediency.

He’s said that, if elected, Plan B contraception pills will “be illegal in Wisconsin,” only to have to walk that back and say, “I am against abortion, I am not against contraception.” (At the event where he vowed to make these pills illegal, Michels opined, “I don’t begin to say I know what God’s thinking” and then proceeded to do exactly that. “I believe that God is unhappy with a country that allows for the killing of babies.”)

Michels has also claimed he had nothing to do with and does not support positions taken by a statewide lobbying group during a time when he just happened to be president of its board of directors.

On August 1, Michels declared at a candidate forum that he was not promising to back Trump should he again run for president, even though Trump had endorsed him and was coming to the state to campaign for him: “I have made no commitments to any candidates in 2024. What I’m focusing on is beating Tony Evers.”

On August 2, Michels reversed himself, telling another audience: “I wish [Trump] was president today and had four more years. If he runs in 2024 . . . I will support him and I will endorse him. We need somebody like that in Washington, D.C.”

In the primary, Michels ran an ad bashing his most formidable opponent, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, for not backing Trump in the 2016 primary. It then came to light that Michels, in this primary election, did not even vote. He blamed this missed opportunity on “a sudden, unforeseen major issue on the big Michels Corporation construction project in New York.”

Moreover, as the Associated Press pointed out, Michels launched this attack ad “days after he said that running negative ads is ‘just bad policy’ and that politicians who do it are ‘losing.’”

Michels, in his campaign messaging, strives to come across as an Ordinary Joe, with rolled up sleeves, blue jeans, and an aw-shucks demeanor. It’s a tough sell, given that Michels, co-owner of the state’s largest construction company, has pumped at least $15.7 million of his own money into his campaign, accounting for the vast majority of his warchest. (Evers has raised the same amount so far this year in contributions from people who are not himself.)

As the website Wisconsin Right Now has reported, Michels and his wife, Barbara, own a New York penthouse that they purchased for $8.7 million in 2015 as well as a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, that they snapped up for $17 million in 2020. The couple also owns a home in Hartford, Wisconsin, worth more than $5 million. All three of the couple’s children graduated from high schools in Connecticut and New York City. (Michels has said he’s lived in Wisconsin for at least half of the days in almost every recent year to maintain residency for tax and voting purposes, not that he always makes it to the polls.)

Michels has described himself in ads as a “self-made businessman.” In fact, as the website Urban Milwaukee has reported, the Michels Corporation was built by his parents and then taken over by their children, Tim included.

Evers, meanwhile, is a former public school science teacher who went on to become a school principal and school district administrator, followed by three terms as the Wisconsin public schools superintendent. He’s a mild-mannered guy who is frankly hard to demonize, not that that has stopped Michels from trying.

“Tony Evers—he blames the police, coddles criminals, and stood by as Kenosha burned,” warns one Michels ad. So much for not going negative.

It’s just one more capitulation on top of many that have come before. Poor, poor, pitiful Tim.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.