GOP businessman Tim Michels enters crowded GOP field for governor

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BROWNSVILLE Wis. (CBS 58) -- Business owner Tim Michels is entering the crowded Republican primary for governor, casting himself as an outsider and a leader during his campaign announcement in Brownsville Monday.

Michels entry to the race comes four months before the August 9th primary where he will face off against former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson, and State. Rep. Tim Ramthun (R-Campbellsport). The winner of the primary will then go up against incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers during the general election on November 8th.

The multimillionaire made his bid official during a campaign event at his family business Michels Corp., an international and infrastructure construction facility located in Brownsville where he grew up. It could help Michels funnel millions of his own personal wealth into his campaign and change the dynamic of the crowded Republican field.

"Today begins a new era of Wisconsin," Michels said to a crowd of supporters. "Enough of the political bickers, enough of the left and right not getting along. We have to bring people together to work this stuff out."

Michels campaign speech lasted less than 10 minutes and he didn't take questions from reporters. He touted his business background as a way to bring people together to fix a rise in crime. Michels called Milwaukee Public School an "utter failure" and said changes at the district could help combat an uptick in crime.

"We will get MPS straightened out and that will be the greatest thing for the city of Milwaukee because that will also help get people an education, get kids off the street and start alleviating crime," said Michels.

Michels, who hasn't been on the ballot since 2004 after an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, promised in his first campaign ad to "turn Madison upside down" and branded himself as an outsider -- a title two of his GOP primary opponents have already embraced.

"The radical left, they’re destroying everything we love about America, but too many establishment Republicans, they’re along for the ride," Michels said in his first campaign ad. "I’m not some career politician."

Nicholson and Ramthun have established themselves as anti-establishment candidates in the race, positioning themselves as outsiders from the party and GOP frontrunner Kleefisch, who is leading in the polls and support from top Republicans including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Political science experts said Michels entry suggests some party leaders have doubts Kleefisch is the strongest candidate to beat Gov. Tony Evers, who's running for a second term.

"Kleefisch has not been able to clear the field and basically remove competition," said Anthony Chergosky, Political Science Assistant Professor at UW-La Crosse. "It's been quite the opposite. More competition has been coming into the field and that tells you something about how Rebecca Kleefisch is perceived by many in her party."

When it comes to raising funds for his governor bid, Michels suggested in a Monday radio interview he will likely self-fund his own campaign.

During an interview on WISN's Jay Weber show, Michels said he would not accept donations from lobbyists or political action committees adding the minimum contribution he'd accept is $500 from individuals. State law allows individuals to contribute up to $20,000 for a candidate.

While Michels attempts to win-over voters, he's expected to face questions on how to avoid conflicts of interest if elected because his family business has received hundreds of millions in government contracts. Michels Corps has received over $600 million in state payments over the last few years, according to records.

Michels is also facing criticism over his background of serving on the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce board and having ties to Kleefisch's 1848 Project, a conservative advocacy organization Kleefisch founded but has since stepped down after entering the race.

“Tim Michels has a murky business record and a history of swindling Wisconsin taxpayers and abandoning communities in need," said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. "And as a former Rebecca Kleefisch advisor, it’s unsurprising that Michels holds the same radical beliefs as Kleefisch, including wanting to ban abortions with no exceptions and supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage."

Michels has not stated where he stands on those issues today. It's been nearly 20 years since he last ran for office after his defeat to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in 2004.

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