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With abortion ban likely, Wisconsin's midterm elections already taking on a new form

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Abortion rights protest

Demonstrators protest outside the state Capitol in Madison Tuesday, a day after a leaked draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide. 

Less than 24 hours after a leaked draft opinion showed the U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, the pending decision has transformed the debate over what’s at stake in Wisconsin’s senatorial and gubernatorial elections.

Beginning only moments after Politico broke the news Monday night, candidates on both sides issued urgent pleas for support, noting the court’s decision would resurrect Wisconsin’s long-dormant ban on abortions before voters head to the polls in November.

For Republicans, the ruling provides momentum for a nationwide ban on abortions. Democrats said the decision underscores just how fragile the right to an abortion is in America, and why voters should elect them to enshrine that right in legislation nationwide — and do away with the filibuster while they’re at it.

“If the Supreme Court ruling becomes our reality, it will be up to elected officials to make that decision about women’s health care and women’s reproductive justice,” state Treasurer and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski said at a press conference Tuesday morning. “And we know (Republican U.S. Sen.) Ron Johnson does not care about women’s reproductive justice.”

Although it’s not known who leaked the opinion, Johnson called the leak “yet another example of how the radical left intends to ‘fundamentally transform’ America.”

Repeating his campaign’s theme that the country is in peril from Democrats, Johnson then ticked off a list of grievances — border security, gas prices, inflation, crime — before adding, “They are fundamentally destroying our country — they must be stopped.”

Hours after the tweet, Johnson sent supporters a substantively similar statement in an email with a link to donate to his campaign.

Later on Tuesday, after calling for the court to overturn Roe for years, Johnson said the decision — if it becomes final — would be the correct one. In a Newsmax interview, Johnson added that abortion’s legality is an issue best left to the states. Johnson also said he had supported a federal bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks after fertilization.

Yet, in surveys conducted by the Marquette Law School Poll over the last decade, Wisconsinites by a nearly 2-to-1 margin have said abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

If Roe is overturned, Wisconsin’s existing law dictates that destroying the life of an “unborn child” would constitute a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years of combined prison and extended supervision and a fine of up to $10,000. The willful killing of an “unborn quick child,” which is generally described as a fetus that has developed to the stage that it moves within the womb, would be a Class E felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and five years of extended supervision. The law, passed in 1849, includes an exception for when a mother’s life is in danger but not for rape or incest.

Governor’s office

Still on the books but unenforceable since Roe, a resumption of the state ban would swamp Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to stand as a bulwark between the Republican-controlled Legislature and a full-fledged abortion ban.

“Before I became governor, I promised I’d fight to protect access to abortion and reproductive rights,” Evers said Monday evening. “I’ve kept that promise, and I will fight every day as long as I’m governor.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Evers announced he led a cohort of 17 governors calling on Congress to immediately protect access to abortion nationwide.

“Abortion is on the ballot this November,” Evers press secretary Kayla Anderson said. “Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, a Democratic governor will be the only thing stopping extremist Republican lawmakers from enforcing a centuries-old law banning abortion with no exceptions.”

President Joe Biden assumed much the same stance Tuesday, telling reporters that if the court overturns Roe, “At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law.”

Evers’ Republican gubernatorial opponents on Monday night said they had been praying for the decision.

Former Lt. Gov. and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch has said she would sign a bill that bans abortions once doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat.

The latest entry into the governor’s race, Tim Michels, who co-owns Michels Corp., tweeted Tuesday that he and his wife, Barbara, “have long worked for and prayed for this moment, and we hope this news proves to be true.

“As governor, I will always work to protect the unborn, while working to win hearts and minds,” he added.

Fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, also tweeted on Monday and Tuesday that they hoped the leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision was true.

Democrats react

Democrats saw in the decision far more than a rolling back of abortion rights.

“Every single Republican running for governor supports policies restricting access to abortion in Wisconsin,” Anderson said. “If Republicans get their way, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites could lose access to abortion, fertility treatments like IVF, cancer screenings, birth control, and more thanks to their divisive agenda for our health care.”

Madison City Council President Keith Furman, Vice President Jael Currie and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a joint statement Tuesday that they “refuse to go back to 1849.”

“We will not allow an extremist court, representing the position of a minority of voters, strip women of a hard-won right,” the Madison officials said. “We know that if this decision is allowed to stand, many more equally important rights will come under attack. The court’s reasoning threatens the right to privacy, gay rights, contraceptive rights and more.”

The leading Democratic U.S. Senate candidates also called on the Senate to end the filibuster in order to pass legislation co-written by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, that would prohibit governmental restrictions to abortion services.

While Democrats already have a majority in the U.S. Senate, they remain divided on ending the filibuster. That means ending it would require greater momentum or gaining a larger majority, two difficult outcomes in a midterm year that experts say will likely favor Republicans.

But, speaking from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Monday evening, Godlewski implied Democrats share some blame for not achieving their goal of enshrining a right to an abortion in federal law.

“I am frustrated that we have had 50 years to (codify Roe),” she said. “And Democrats have had the White House, the Senate and the House to be able to do this. Here we are.”

Her swift advocacy has led to a surge in donations, campaign spokesperson Sarah Abel said Tuesday.

One of her Democratic primary opponents, U.S. Senate candidate and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, also said Tuesday he would vote to codify Roe, sharing a fundraising link titled, “Reproductive Rights are on the Ballot.”

Similarly, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alex Lasry’s spokesperson Thad Nation said Lasry saw “a significant bump in online donations since Alex was on the Supreme Court steps last night after the story came out.”

The decision has also dramatically raised the stakes in the race for attorney general. Democratic incumbent Josh Kaul pledged Tuesday not to investigate or prosecute alleged violations of the state’s 19th-century abortion ban. His Republican challengers, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney and Adam Jarchow, a former state representative from Balsam Lake, have both said they would enforce the 1849 law.

Top 10 Wisconsin political stories of 2021 (based on what you, the readers, read)

2021 was another big year in Wisconsin politics. Sen. Ron Johnson said some things. Voters elected a new state superintendent. Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans clashed over mask mandates. Michael Gableman threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay. Here are 10 political stories you, the readers, checked out in droves.

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Since the start of the outbreak, Gov. Tony Evers has issued multiple public health emergencies and a series of related orders. 

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Sen. Ron slammed the impeachment over the weekend as “vindictive and divisive,” and possibly a “diversionary operation” by Democrats to distract from security lapses at the U.S. Capitol.

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"I wouldn’t run if I don’t think I could win," said Johnson, who is undecided on a re-election bid. 

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The board had previously not required masks in schools after some in the public voiced opposition.

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With a new order announced, Republicans may be forced to start the process all over again to vote down the governor's emergency order and accompanying mask mandate, but the most likely outcome appears to be an eventual court decision.

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Fort McCoy officials acknowledge there were initial problems with food supply, but that and other issues are being addressed.

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The idea is in its infancy and all options, including declining to pursue anything, are on the table.

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Gableman has asked the court, which plans to take up the matter on Dec. 22, to compel the two mayors to meet with him.

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Deborah Kerr said she has also voted for Republicans and tells GOP audiences on the campaign trail for the officially nonpartisan race that she is a "pragmatic Democrat."

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Limbaugh died Wednesday at 70.

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