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Abortion Access and Future Elections Are at Risk in Wisconsin. These 5 Midterm Races Could Determine Their Future.

Wisconsin state with I voted images over it
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Sep 23, 2022

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, we're breaking down some of the key races in states facing tight races. 

And in Wisconsin, the stakes are high. That’s because voters will have the chance to weigh in on how they want the state to handle some of today’s biggest issues.

For example, abortion. When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, a Wisconsin law from 1849 took effect — banning nearly all abortions, except to save the life of a pregnant person. Since then, the state's Democratic governor and attorney general have filed a lawsuit to block the ban, but the result of that is still TBD. Especially since their GOP challengers have said they'll enforce the ban if elected.

Also up for debate this year: the election process. Since a number of candidates are running to change the way the state conducts its elections.

And on top of all that, Wisconsin is a swing state. Meaning, the results of these elections could impact which party controls the state and represents it in Congress. Let's dive in.

The state of Wisconsin

President Joe Biden won Wisconsin by less than one percentage point in 2020. And former President Donald Trump nabbed it by one percentage point in 2016. Not to mention that both its House and Senate seats are almost evenly split between the two parties.

But it doesn’t stop there. At the state level, all of Wisconsin’s top officials are blue. (Btw: All of them are up for reelection.) While Republicans have controlled the state legislature since 2011. 

However, the state's purple status could soon change. In April, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted to adopt new GOP-drawn maps. The decision came after the state’s highest court initially approved the Democratic governor’s map – which prompted state Republicans to file a request to SCOTUS to overturn the decision. And they did. 

But the party tricks don’t stop there. Last year, the GOP-controlled state legislature launched an investigation into the 2020 presidential election. The investigation cost taxpayers more than $1 million, and found no significant cases of voter fraud.

Now, Republicans are trying to influence who runs elections in the state. Here’s what to know. 

Races to watch

Here are the top races to watch at the state and federal level in Wisconsin. PS: Here’s what each elected position actually does. 

State

  • Gubernatorial Race

    • The candidates: Incumbent Tony Evers (D) vs. Tim Michels (R) 

    • Stakes: Whoever is elected to the governor’s office will play a large role in the direction the state takes in the fight over abortion access. And both have very different approaches. 

    • What to know: Evers, who has held this seat since 2018, has been a vocal opponent of the state’s abortion ban – and even filed a lawsuit challenging it. And he’s said that he’ll provide clemency to any physician that is charged under the law. Additionally, he plans to focus on education, inflation, infrastructure, and healthcare. As well as ensuring that state elections remain “accessible, secure, and fair.” Michels, a Trump-endorsed, pro-life veteran, says he’ll enforce the abortion ban. Beyond that, he wants to “drain the Madison swamp,” support the police (think: hire more police and prosecute “riot organizers”), and “restore election integrity.” Which he’d do by allowing the governor to remove and replace any election official held in contempt of court, and banning unmanned ballot drop boxes and pop-up polling locations. Project FiveThirtyEight says Evers is “favored” to win, though a poll found that his lead is slim against Michels. 

  • Attorney General Race

    • The candidates: Incumbent Josh Kaul (D)vs. Eric Toney (R)

    • Stakes: A state’s AG is in charge of enforcing laws like abortion bans, mask mandates, and gun restrictions. And Kaul and Toney have shown that they have different stances on some of these top issues. That could influence how these laws are prosecuted in the state. 

    • What to know: Kaul – who has been the state’s AG since 2019 — filed a lawsuit along with Evers to challenge a pre-Roe Wisconsin law that bans abortion. If reelected, he says he wouldn’t use any resources to enforce the ban. Additionally, he’ll focus on the drug epidemic, school safety, and supporting police. When it comes to elections, Kaul says he’s fought against individuals trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Toney, a district attorney, would enforce the abortion ban. He says he supports qualified immunity for police, will protect the Second Amendment, and claims he’s prosecuted “more election fraud than anyone” in Wisconsin. And that he’s fighting to hold the Wisconsin Election Commission Board accountable “for their actions in 2020.”

  • Secretary of State Race

    • The candidates: Incumbent Douglas J. La Follette (D) vs. Amy Loudenbeck (R) 

    • Stakes: Currently, the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission is in charge of overseeing elections. But Republicans want to shift those responsibilities to the secretary of state's office — which is already in charge of authenticating the list of electors sent to Congress.

    • What to know: La Follette has been Wisconsin’s secretary of state for 44 years. (Yes, you read that right.) If reelected, he vows to keep “far-right Republicans' hands off the Elections Commission.” Loudenbeck, a representative in the state assembly, wants to use the office to “ensure election integrity.” To do that, she wants the state to give oversight of elections to the secretary of state’s office. Particularly since she says the way the commission handled the 2020 election has “raised serious questions and doubts.” Plus, she’ll “address” the use of ballot drop boxes, absentee voting, and ballot harvesting. 

Federal

  • Senate Race

    • The candidates: Incumbent Ronald Harold Johnson (R) vs. Mandela Barnes (D) 

    • Stakes: Johnson (who initially said he wouldn't run for another term) is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection. So Dems believe it could be a chance to pick up another seat — and tilt the 50-50 Senate in their favor. Especially since Barnes, who would be the state's first Black senator, has a slight lead over Johnson in what's shaping up to be a very tight race.

    • What to know: Johnson — who has been in office since 2011 — is a big Trump supporter and a prominent 2020 election denier. Think: He attempted to block certifying Biden as president. And his chief of staff tried to give former VP Mike Pence a list of fake electors. Meanwhile, Barnes — who is currently Wisconsin's lieutenant governor — says he wants to pass a new voting rights act, “crack down” on foreign interference in elections, and “protect against election subversion.”

  • 3rd Congressional District Race

    • The candidates: Brad Pfaff (D) vs. Derrick Van Orden (R) 

    • Stakes: This blue district looks likely to turn red. According to Project FiveThirtyEight, Van Orden is “favored” to win the seat. 

    • What to know: The two candidates have very different campaign strategies, according to PBS Wisconsin. To appeal to the largely rural population, Pfaff — a member of the state Senate — is running on local issues (think: the economy, education, and voting rights). Whereas Van Orden — a retired Navy Seal — is running on national political issues (think: COVID-19 and funding the police).

theSkimm

Wisconsin’s access to abortions and free and fair elections is at risk. And the main way to ensure your elected officials work for you is to vote them into office. You have until Oct. 19 to register to vote by mail and online. And you have until Election Day to register to vote at your polling place.

PS: Check out our page that will help you build your ballot before you cast your vote.

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