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Opinion Wisconsin voters will tell us if a woman is the best abortion advocate

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski participates in a televised Democratic debate in Milwaukee for Wisconsin's Senate seat. (Morry Gash/AP)

Wisconsin’s heavily contested Democratic Senate primary raises an interesting question for the party’s voters: If they prioritize abortion rights, shouldn’t they try to send a woman to Washington?

Bunched at the top of the race are Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, whose endorsements from the far left of the party raise questions about his electability; former Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who is running on the strength of his civic accomplishments; and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the only woman in contention. They all appeared in a debate Sunday, along with pro-union populist Tom Nelson and Steve Olikara, former head of the Millennial Action Project.

Godlewski was the candidate who stood out, and not just because her bright green jacket contrasted with the lineup of men in dark suits. She presented a feisty image, stressing her success in winning statewide races in the swing state.

Where she really leaned in, however, was on the argument that her male opponents are latecomers to the abortion debate. She noted that in events predating the Dobbs decision that overturned abortion rights, she was often the only person to bring up reproductive rights. “For me, this is not an afterthought,” she said.

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Her strong appearance will test the degree to which abortion has become a top priority — perhaps the highest priority — in the wake of Dobbs. She certainly has made abortion rights a cornerstone of her campaign. She was the first up with an ad — shot from the steps of the Supreme Court, no less — after the Dobbs ruling leaked. She also featured a practicing OB/GYN in another ad. In an interview with NPR in late June, she explained, “This is one of the reasons I stepped up to run for the U.S. Senate . . . I was getting sick of reproductive freedom being treated like some sort of extra credit project.”

She has received the endorsement of Emily’s List, which backs pro-choice female candidates. And on Monday, her campaign announced a list of OB/GYNs backing her candidacy. She remains in third place in polls, although she has moved up from low single digits. If she is to break out of the pack, her best chance might be to convince voters, women in particular, that she is the most effective and determined advocate for abortion rights.

A Marquette University Law School poll last month conducted before the Dobbs decision showed Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly favor abortion rights. Nearly 60 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, whereas only 35 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. Given the state’s trigger law that will impose an 1849 law banning abortions with no exception for rape, incest or the health of the mother, the issue is no longer theoretical. The Post reported on a recent case in the state in which “a woman bled for more than 10 days from an incomplete miscarriage after emergency room staff would not remove the fetal tissue amid a confusing legal landscape that has roiled obstetric care.”

All the Democratic contenders present themselves as pro-choice. Nevertheless, the race might provide some insight into how much Democrats, especially Democratic women, are willing to emphasize abortion as an issue ahead of the midterms. Will they choose a woman, who wants to make it a top priority? Or will they choose a male candidate, for whom abortion is one of many reliably liberal positions? The primary takes place on Aug. 9.

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