Late-counted ballots from Milwaukee County pushed Madison attorney Josh Kaul to a lead early Wednesday in his bid to unseat incumbent state Attorney General Brad Schimel.
The late surge by Kaul came after Milwaukee County counted about 46,000 early and mail-in ballots, which cut heavily for Democrats, including state Superintendent Tony Evers, who is battling incumbent Gov. Scott Walker.
Few votes remained to be counted elsewhere in Wisconsin, including a few precincts in Manitowoc and Waukesha counties, which were heavily Republican in voting Tuesday, and La Crosse and Portage counties, which had earlier gone mostly to Democratic candidates.
The lead had gone back and forth Tuesday night before settling into a Schimel lead late in the evening. That changed when Milwaukee County's late votes came in and gave Kaul a lead of more than 20,000 votes.
Kaul, a Democrat, was watching returns with state treasurer candidate Sarah Godlewski at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, while Schimel's party was at the Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee, where Schimel, a Republican, was expected to play bass with a classic rock band. Schimel retired for the night before the Milwaukee County ballots were counted.
Schimel, 53, was elected attorney general in 2014 after serving as Waukesha County district attorney for about seven years. Kaul, 37, an attorney in the Madison office of Perkins Coie, was in his first run for public office after having also worked as a prosecutor for about four years in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore.
During the campaign, Schimel painted Kaul as inexperienced and soft on crime and said he had never prosecuted a case in Wisconsin. Kaul criticized what he said was inaction by Schimel on a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits and said Schimel wasted taxpayer money on congratulatory trinkets with his own name on them. Schimel highlighted endorsements of his campaign by Wisconsin sheriffs and district attorneys, including a number of Democrats. He also campaigned on completing tests on the rape kit backlog and on efforts to stem the tide of opioid abuse in Wisconsin.
Kaul claimed the support of 61 former state assistant attorneys general, including several who worked for Schimel, who said that Schimel had politicized the office, micromanaged and marginalized the work of subordinates. Kaul, the son of former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who held the office from 2003 to 2007, also said that Schimel hurt constituents by taking on lawsuits that challenged the federal Affordable Care Act and favored polluters.
The race showed signs of tightening in the weeks leading to the election. While initially behind in the Marquette Law School poll by seven points as of September, Kaul closed the gap to four points in mid-October and two points in the poll released on Oct. 31.