MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin endorsed by Donald Trump is calling for people to take up “pitchforks and torches” in reaction to a story that detailed his giving to anti-abortion groups, churches and others — rhetoric that Democrats say amounts to threatening violence.
Tim Michels, who co-owns the state's largest construction company, faces Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in the battleground state. If Michels wins, he will be in position to enact a host of GOP priorities passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature leading into the 2024 presidential election. Evers has vetoed more bills than any governor in modern state history and is campaigning on his ability to serve as a check on Republicans.
Michels, a multimillionaire, this week reacted strongly to a story published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing charitable giving by he and his wife's foundation, some of which went to anti-abortion groups and churches that have taken anti-gay positions.
Since the story's publication, Michels has gone after not just Evers and Democrats, but also the Journal Sentinel and, more broadly, all reporters.
“I believe people should just, just be ready to get out on the streets with pitchforks and torches with how low the liberal media has become,” Michels said Thursday on a conservative talk radio show. “People need to decide ‘Am I going to put up with this? Am I going to tolerate this, taking somebody that gives money to churches or cancer research and use that as a hit piece in the media?’ I’m appalled. It’s disgusting.”
That's further than he went in a campaign website posting on Thursday when he encouraged people to “Get involved. Push back. Speak up. Volunteer. Donate. Vote.”
Evers' spokesman, Sam Roecker, tweeted Friday that Michels had gone too far.
“Instead of explaining why he’s funding groups working to ban access to abortion and contraception, Tim Michels is encouraging violence,” Roecker wrote. “He’s too radical for Wisconsin.”
Hannah Menchhff, a Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesperson, accused Michels of threatening violence in an “extreme attempt to pander to Donald Trump and the MAGA base.”
Michels' campaign spokesperson, Anna Kelly, on Friday downplayed his comments.
“Only political hacks and media accomplices would freak out about Tim using a figure of speech to emphasize the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s ridiculous characterization of his donations to churches, nuns, and charitable causes as ‘radical,’” she said.
Michels, who has used the Journal Sentinel article in fundraising pleas, posted a lengthy response to the piece on his campaign website Thursday. He accused Evers and the “corrupt media” of turning his charitable giving and faith “into something malicious.”
“I will never, ever apologize for giving to charitable causes, or for being a Christian,” Michels wrote. “However, the Journal Sentinel should be ashamed of their anti-religious bigotry.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel executive editor George Stanley defended the article, noting that the paper ran a piece on the same day about security costs for the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate that his Republican opponent was urging people to read.
“Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters are independent of all political parties and special interest groups," Stanley said. “We are committed to accuracy so citizens can make up their own minds and stay in charge of their government.”
The Timothy and Barbara Michels Family Foundation donated $1.66 million in 2020 alone, the Journal Sentinel reported. The bulk of it, $1 million, went to Cornell University in New York. where a faculty member pioneered a rare surgery that saved the life of Michels’ daughter, who had a brain tumor at age 11.
The Journal Sentinel published a story in March about that donation and the surgery that Michels' daughter had. That was one month before Michels announced his run for governor.
Michels also gave $175,000 to Wisconsin Right to Life, Pro Life Wisconsin Education Task Force and Avail NYC, a New York City crisis pregnancy center.
Pro Life Wisconsin wants to outlaw abortion and ban most common forms of contraception and birth control. It also wants to prohibit in vitro fertilization.
The Michels’ foundation also donated $10,000 to Christ Fellowship in Miami. The Journal Sentinel’s story noted that the church’s pastor, Omar Giritli, in June called arguments for exception to abortions in cases of rape or incest “deceptive reasoning.”
The couple also donated $50,000 to Spring Creek Church in Pewaukee. Its pastor, Chip Bernhard, has suggested that people who have an abortion need forgiveness, and allowing transgender children to use the bathroom of their choice is “awful.”
Kelly, Michels’ campaign spokesperson, did not immediately respond to questions about whether Michels supported those positions.
Michels defended his giving to pregnancy resource centers, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro Life Wisconsin, saying "we believe women who may feel overwhelmed by an unplanned pregnancy need and deserve compassion, love, support and options other than abortion.
“I apologize for none of it,” Michels wrote.
This story was updated to correct that George Stanley is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s executive editor, not its managing editor.