The two front-runners in Wisconsin's Republican primary race for governor went after one another Wednesday over gas prices, marking a more negative shift in the race less than five weeks before the Aug. 9 primary.
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch attacked rival Tim Michels by name for the first time in a television ad running statewide where she bemoans high gas prices as she fills up her minivan. Kleefisch has been criticizing Michels for in recent interviews and appearances, but the ad was the first of its kind from either of the top two candidates.
A Marquette University Law School poll two weeks ago showed Kleefisch and Michels at the front of the GOP race. Kevin Nicholson dropped out of the race on Tuesday and another candidate, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, trails with support in the single digits.
Kleefisch, in her ad, first dings President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers, both Democrats, over high gas prices as she puts a gas pump into her minivan. But then she turns her attention to Michels, saying that he “pushed for years to raise our gas tax while getting rich from massive government contracts. Tim Michels is out for himself.”
Michels, who is endorsed by Donald Trump, responded with a statement calling the ad “sad" and “completely false.”
“When politicians are shocked to find themselves losing, they go negative out of desperation," Michels said. “So it is sad that the former Lieutenant Governor has decided to go negative by falling in line with politics as usual.”
Michels said "I did not, and do not, advocate for a higher gas tax.” He said his focus was on beating Evers and fighting with Kleefisch does not help that.
The ad cites an article published last week by the conservative online website Wisconsin Right Now which detailed Michels' connection to groups that have long advocated for raising the gas tax both in Wisconsin, in other states and federally. Michels is co-owner of his family's construction firm Michels Corp.
Michels once served as president of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, which was part of a coalition formed to improve roads and other state infrastructure. That group said that the gas tax was “becoming necessary” to fund Wisconsin roads. The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association also lobbied for an increase in the federal gas tax.
Michels also served on the executive board of the Transportation Development Association. That group’s former leader, who currently serves as Evers' transportation secretary, advocated for higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees in 2018. Michels Corp. is currently a member of the TDA.
Michels was also a member of the board of directors of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business and manufacturing group which supports higher gas taxes. That group has endorsed Kleefisch in the governor's race.
The blow-up over the Kleefisch ad is a continuation of a spat between the two candidates that started last week after Kleefisch attacked Michels over the gas tax in a television interview, leading Michels to respond by accusing Kleefisch of being “sad” and “desperate.”
Michels said he supports a gas tax holiday, opposes tying the gas tax to inflation and supports repealing the state's “minimum markup law” which prevents retailers from selling gas and other goods below cost in an attempt to attract customers.
Also on Wednesday, a super PAC that supports Kleefisch launched its first attack ad against Michels also on the gas tax issue. The group's leader, Stephan Thompson, confirmed the content of the ad but refused to release a copy of it.
Kleefisch served eight years as lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott Walker. Michels ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 but lost to then-Sen. Russ Feingold. The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will face Evers in November.
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