Former President Donald Trump used a campaign stop in Waukesha to call Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels a “great builder” while attacking Michels’ Republican opponent Rebecca Kleefisch as a “candidate handpicked from the bankrupt establishment”.
Trump also suggested that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who helped set the GOP agenda in Wisconsin for a decade, is a Democrat, urging people to vote for his main opponent, Adam Steen. At one point, he even attacked Kleefisch’s husband.
It was the latest reminder that Trump remains obsessed with politics in Wisconsin at all levels as he prepares for an almost certain run for president in 2024. Trump officially endorsed Michels in early June, but Friday was the first time the two had shared a stage together at a political event.
“You have to figure out who Tim is. This guy is a big moment,” Trump said.
Trump said when Michels met with him to ask for his endorsement, the two spent most of their time talking about Michels Corporation, his family’s construction company.
“I’m sorry, I love the build,” Trump said. “But he’s big. He’s big, that’s the point.”
Trump said he and Michels were introduced by Diane Hendrix, the billionaire GOP donor who was one of former Gov. Scott Walker’s biggest supporters. Walker is backing Kleefisch, his former lieutenant governor, in the GOP primary.
Trump called Kleefisch a political insider.
“She’s the hand-picked candidate of the failed establishment, the RINOs and the Washington swamp,” Trump said, referring to the acronym for Republicans In Name Only. “Kleefisch complains about lobbyists, but her husband is one of the biggest lobbyists in a place called Madison,” Trump said, referring to Joel Kleefisch, the former state representative turned lobbyist who currently represents nine customers, according to state records.
Trump also attacked Vos, who has repeatedly angered Trump for his refusal to try to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin, a step election law experts say is legally impossible.
“Adam Steen is racing to defeat your house RINO speaker, Robin Vos,” Trump said.
Trump said Vos, who passed several bills in the last session that would have made absentee voting more difficult, blocked efforts to secure the election.
“He just blocks them,” Trump said. “A lot of people think he’s a Democrat.”
Michels has repeatedly praised former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whom Vos hired to lead a Republican investigation into the 2020 election. Gableman remains on the state payroll under a contract that he signed with Vos.
“And you know, Michael supports Steen,” Trump said.
Gableman spoke at the event, but only to say the prayer, where he did not mention either Vos or Steen by name.
Michels draws parallels with Trump and attacks Kleefisch
Michels spoke twice Friday, once briefly while Trump was on stage and hours earlier before the former president arrived in Wisconsin.
During his earlier remarks, Michels drew parallels between himself and Trump, saying Trump endorsed him because they are builders, businessmen and “outsiders” all at the same time.
“It’s been too long since President Trump has been in power,” Michels said. “I wish he was president today. Joe Biden and (Democratic Governor) Tony Evers are two peas in a pod. Both career politicians are way over their heads.”
Michels’ appearance at the rally came after he said during a debate on Monday that he would not commit to endorsing Trump if he ran for president again in 2024. On Tuesday, Michels reversed his position, promising to endorse Trump if he ran again.
Michels said he ran for governor because he and his wife were concerned about what was happening in America, referencing Critical Race Theory, or CRT, an academic legal framework to help identify the effects of structural racism on politics and Black Lives Matter, among other causes.
“We can’t take it anymore,” Michels said. “This country is on a slippery slope to socialism. It’s hidden behind CRT. It’s hidden behind BLM. It’s hidden behind ‘defunding the police’. But we can see what’s going on.”
Michels, who opposes same-sex marriage, also suggested the Democratic Party has been losing voters due to its support for LGBTQ rights.
“I’ve got guys coming up to me and they’re like, ‘Tim, I work in the union, but you know what? The Democratic Party left me. All they care about now is LGBTQ and drag queen shows for third graders,’” Michels says.
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In addition to Trump, Michels touted his endorsement of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history who also served two decades in the state Legislature.
“A great unifier,” Michels said of Thompson. “Four times elected governor of Wisconsin.”
Less than a minute later, Michels said people embraced his campaign because they were tired of career politicians.
“That’s how our founding fathers intended it,” Michels said. “Back then, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, take your real-life experience, go to the Legislative Assembly, serve a few terms, then go back and let someone else do it.”
Michels also attacked Kleefisch’s husband, Joel, hours before Trump made a similar remark.
“Her husband is a lobbyist,” Michels said. “We need to get these people out of government. We need to bring some purity back into government.”
In a written statement, the Kleefisch campaign criticized Michels for his comments and for allegedly showing Trump a photo of Kleefisch’s teenage daughter going homecoming with the son of state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, the one of Trump’s favorite targets. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last month that the photo was a factor in Trump endorsing Michels over Kleefisch.
“First Tim Michels dragged Rebecca’s daughter into this race for an endorsement, and now he’s personally attacking her husband,” Kleefisch spokesman Alec Zimmerman said. “Maybe it’s okay in Connecticut, but people in Wisconsin expect better.”
Michels has a home in Connecticut where he lives part-time with his family.
The winner of the Aug. 9 GOP primary will face Gov. Tony Evers in the November general election.
Evers’ campaign said before the rally that Michels was ending his “radical” primary campaign by bringing in Trump, calling the former president “one of the most controversial politicians.”
“Michels embraced Trump’s election lies at every turn, saying he was open to nullifying the election results and dismantling our two-party electoral system,” Evers campaign spokesman Sam Roecker said. . “Every Republican primary candidate is too extreme for our state.”
Michels did not criticize specific lawmakers, although he spoke shortly after Steen addressed the crowd in his own speech attacking Vos. Trump endorsed Steen on Tuesday.
“There’s only one man responsible for the evil happening in Madison, and that’s my opponent,” Steen said.
Steen accused Vos of obstructing “free and fair” elections.
“Some call it a RINO,” Steen said. “Others a treacherous traitor but whatever you call it, it’s time to do one thing on August 9. It’s time to dump Vos.”
Other speakers on Friday included Trump backer Alex Bruesewitz, who said he was raised in Ripon. Ripon is often referred to as the birthplace of the Republican Party.
“But I’m sorry, I have to make an announcement. This is the birthplace of the old Republican Party. The new Republican Party was born in June 2015 at Trump Tower in New York,” Brusewitz said, referring to the month Trump. announced his candidacy for the presidency.
“We don’t have to go back to the days of old, thoughtless, cowardly Republicans like (former US House Speaker) Paul Ryan and Robin Vos,” Bruesewitz said. “Vote the RINOs out of office.”
Other Trump-endorsed candidates who spoke on Friday included Derrick Van Orden, the Republican running for the 3rd congressional district in western Wisconsin.
Rep. Janel Brandtjen, another Republican who has feuded with Vos and recently backed a call to decertify the 2020 election, also spoke. Although Brandtjen has also been endorsed by Trump, she has no primary opponent and her district has a built-in GOP advantage of 32 points according to an analysis by Marquette University.
Trump’s visit to Waukesha put him in the heart of one of the most Republican counties in the state, albeit one where his margins of victory have passed Republicans. It’s also a county where Democrats made modest inroads in recent elections.
“It’s never a great day in your county when Donald Trump arrives because you know he’s going to bring his unique brand of MAGA radical extremism and divisive politics to your community,” said Matt Mareno, president of the Waukesha County Democratic Party. “It’s not something we’re a fan of here in Waukesha.”
Trump was scheduled to return to Wisconsin on August 20, but he canceled that visit after Michels’ campaign rally was scheduled.
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