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A ban, a lawsuit, an election: Abortion firestorm erupts in Wisconsin

The purple state presents a revealing test case, encapsulating many of the political forces charging an explosive national debate

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state Capitol Friday, May 27, 2022, in Madison, Wis. (Scott Bauer/AP)
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WATERTOWN, Wis. — Heather O’Neill hasn’t been very active in politics since 2011 and 2012, when she joined a swell of protests over union rights and cuts to government workers’ pay.

But on Tuesday evening, O’Neill ventured out to a Democratic picnic with her husband, Jesse, setting up lawn chairs to hear from a leading candidate trying to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Days earlier, the couple, joined by their 16-year-old daughter, was out protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Just thinking that she has fewer rights than I did when I was her age is really heartbreaking,” O’Neill said at the picnic hosted by the Jefferson County Democrats, which drew a few dozen people from a Republican-leaning area of tiny towns and farms. “That just made me feel like we need to get involved again.”

Democrats hope the fall of Roe — the landmark case that made abortion a constitutional right for nearly half a century — can animate their voters in an otherwise difficult election year. Wisconsin — where a law from 1849 now bans almost all abortions — will be a revealing test case that encapsulates many of the political forces charging an explosive national debate.

Democratic candidates in highly competitive races for governor, Congress and other offices have put abortion front and center in recent days, promising clemency for Wisconsin doctors and efforts to end the Senate filibuster that stands in the way of federal legislation on abortion rights.

Abortion is now banned in these states. See where laws have changed.

“We will fight,” Gov. Tony Evers (D), who is seeking reelection and working to thwart the abortion ban, said in an interview with The Washington Post this week. “We will fight every possible way to keep what we’ve got for the last 50 years.”

While some already see signs of heightened Democratic energy in this purple state, pollsters say it is too early to draw conclusions about how abortion will factor into the outcomes here in November. Republicans in Wisconsin also view the issue as a motivator for their base.

At a GOP gubernatorial debate this week, candidates enthusiastically endorsed the state’s law from the 19th century, which allows abortions only to save a mother’s life and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. Doctors who perform the procedure could face up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

“I will not hesitate to remove district attorneys who refuse to follow the law,” said former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, one of the top candidates. Business executive Tim Michels, another leading candidate, who is endorsed by former president Donald Trump, has also voiced support for the state abortion ban.

Outside a Planned Parenthood in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Republican Anne Franczek stood alone on the sidewalk waiting to hand out pamphlets on birth control, not far from her car with a “TRUST JESUS” bumper sticker. She ignored the young man who walked by saying, “If you know anybody who needs an abortion, I’m driving people down to Illinois.”

Asked how she felt after the Supreme Court’s decision, 64-year-old Franczek struggled to speak for 10 seconds. She put her face in her hands.

“Finally, there’s hope for these little babies to live instead of being killed,” she said.

Wisconsin is a key midterm state that will help decide control of the Senate, on top of the in-state implications of the election. Democrats are encouraged by some recent developments, including surges in political donations. Beyond November, Wisconsin is expected to be a crucial battleground in 2024, after two consecutive presidential elections here were decided by less than a percentage point.

Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul (D), who is also seeking reelection, announced a lawsuit this week to block enforcement of the ban, arguing that the 173-year-old law has “fallen into disuse” and that more recent legislation barring abortion after the point of fetal viability should take precedence. At a news conference Tuesday, Evers emphasized that the old law was passed decades before women got the right to vote.

Ahead of the Aug. 9 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, each candidate has been broaching the issue of abortion in personal terms. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry talks about his wife, who works at Planned Parenthood Wisconsin, now forced to halt abortions. “What voters are starting to see is the stakes of this election,” he said in an interview. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the slight front-runner in Marquette Law School’s recent polling, tells crowds about his mother’s decision to end a risky pregnancy.

Speaking to people gathered at picnic tables in Watertown on Tuesday, Barnes acknowledged that people are mad at Democratic inaction.

“I am telling you, if you send me to the United States Senate and we get one more vote, we will have that pro-choice majority in the United States that will make abortion access the law of the land,” said Barnes, whose campaign broke its record for individual donations the day Roe was overturned. People cheered.

Fifty-eight percent of people in Wisconsin say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Marquette Law poll conducted just before the Supreme Court’s ruling last Friday, while 35 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases. Independents who lean toward one party tend to reflect that party’s views on abortion, said poll director Charles Franklin, while truly down-the-middle independents lean in favor of abortion access.

National polling found that Democrats were more concerned about the issue of abortion than Republicans in May, after a draft opinion overturning Roe was leaked, Franklin said. Yet Republicans were the ones who grew more excited about voting over the past two months in Wisconsin — with two-thirds saying they were very enthusiastic in June, compared with 58 percent of Democrats. Now, some strategists say, the actual ruling — and its instant impact in the state — will change the picture.

“An issue like this can absolutely make the difference in statewide elections,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler.

Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said he expects Roe’s undoing to galvanize young voters and college-educated women and potentially “re-create the coalition that turned on Donald Trump” in 2020, while also boosting liberal turnout as a whole. Sure, he said, abortion is one of many issues — but in narrowly divided Wisconsin, “it all matters.”

Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said he thinks voters will be focused mostly on gas prices, inflation and crime in November. Still, he said, “from a political standpoint, I think everyone’s glad [the ruling] came early, in June and not in October.”

Democrats’ promises to circumvent the abortion ban were a “huge topic” at a Dane County GOP meeting this week, said Chair Scott Grabins. “Clearly it’s not a done deal,” said Grabins, whose county includes the capital, Madison. “Even pro-life individuals, Republicans — there’s still work to be done.”

Johnson, the incumbent senator, praised the ruling as a “victory for life” in a statement last Friday and said it would “allow that democratic process to unfold in each state.” His campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Like many Republicans, Johnson has been focused on criticizing the Biden administration on issues like inflation and border policy.

The Republican-dominated state legislature has not moved to repeal or modify the abortion ban and quickly ended a special session that Evers called for that purpose last week. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R), who did not respond to an inquiry, has expressed support for an exception for cases of rape and incest, but many Democrats are skeptical that will materialize.

With a decisive Republican majority in the legislature, Democrats are focused this cycle on warding off a GOP supermajority that could override the governor’s veto. They say gerrymandering has left the legislature unrepresentative of the Democratic-led state and its residents’ views on abortion, making Evers a crucial bulwark.

“I suppose they may try to take away my clemency rights,” Evers said of Republican legislators in the interview. Whatever they attempt, he said, he’ll veto it.

“If he isn’t there, then we might as well be Texas,” said Leslie DeMuth, who has been knocking on the doors of low-frequency voters for what she calls “deep canvassing” — in-depth conversations with voters about the issues on their mind. Women are mad about abortion, she said.

After the draft opinion gutting Roe leaked, about a dozen Democratic candidates “came off the fence” and jumped into State Assembly races — even ones they are unlikely to win, said Wikler, the Democratic state party chair. “They couldn’t remain on the sidelines.”

Some in Wisconsin say Democrats should have emphasized abortion access far earlier. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski — who focused on the potential loss of Roe in a six-figure ad investment last fall — said in an interview that her campaign saw its highest number of individual donations to date on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“I’m frustrated with my own party,” Godlewski, the only woman in her primary, said at a gathering outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Monday, flanked by doctors in white coats. “We have had 50 years to codify this into law, but for some unknown reason, we just haven’t found the way to prioritize this.” Like others in the race, she wants the Senate to get rid of the filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass federal legislation codifying the right to end a pregnancy.

One of the youngest people in attendance at the event where Barnes spoke on Tuesday was Becca Jesse, 14, who learned that Roe was ending through videos on TikTok.

It’s scary, she said, because very young girls can get pregnant and might be forced to give birth. “That’s just disgusting,” she said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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