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Michels goes after Kleefisch in Wisconsin governor's race

FILE - In this Sunday, July 24, 2002, photo, Tim Michels is introduced at a televised Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate in Milwaukee. Days aft...
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2022, photo, Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch participates in a round table discussion...

FILE - In this Sunday, July 24, 2002, photo, Tim Michels is introduced at a televised Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate in Milwaukee. Days aft...

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2022, photo, Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch participates in a round table discussion...

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tim Michels is on the attack in the waning days of Wisconsin’s tight GOP governor’s primary, with an ad this week faulting his rival for not initially backing Donald Trump in 2016 – even as it emerged Thursday that Michels himself did not vote in that primary.

Michels launched the attack ad against Rebecca Kleefisch days after he said that running negative ads is “just bad policy” and that politicians who do it are “losing.”

The ad faults Kleefisch for not endorsing Trump in the 2016 primary and brands her “the ultimate Madison insider.” Kleefisch, who is backed by former Vice President Mike Pence, is a former two-term lieutenant governor. Michels co-owns the state's largest construction company, Michels Corp.

And while Michels attacked Kleefisch for not backing Trump in 2016, records show Michels did not vote in that primary.

“I missed the Primary, but I didn’t miss the movement,” Michels said in a statement to The Associated Press. Michels said he missed the primary because of “a sudden, unforeseen major issue on the big Michels Corporation construction project in New York.”

Michels said Trump was always his top choice and he never campaigned for or supported anyone else, unlike Kleefisch.

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 blocked the Republican-controlled Legislature's attempts 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 attack ad, saying Thursday it came in response to spots 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, and Trump has scheduled a Friday rally in Waukesha County, just 3 miles from where Pence appeared for Kleefisch, as part of a final push.

Michels notes in his ad that Kleefisch did not back Trump in 2016. She, along with Walker, supported 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.