How abortion and the overturning of Roe v. Wade is shaping Wisconsin's race for governor

MADISON – One hundred days after Roe v. Wade was overturned and 35 days before the November election, Democrats convened at the state Capitol to put the issue of abortion in the minds of voters.

Doctors and nurses are banned from performing abortions in Wisconsin following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning the 1973 law that legalized the procedure. The ruling reshaped the top races in the Badger State, giving Democrats an infusion of enthusiasm in a Republican-favored election year and forcing GOP candidates to balance their anti-abortion base with a popular opinion that favors abortion access.

But Republicans in this battleground state are instead focusing on issues that recent statewide polling shows are more top of mind to voters: crime and inflation.

More: Mandela Barnes tries to shift debate from crime to abortion as U.S. Senate race reaches a critical juncture

On Oct. 4, Republican legislative leaders quickly adjourned a special session Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers called to give voters a pathway to set abortion policy in Wisconsin — the latest fruitless effort by Evers to change the state's abortion law and one that Democrats have used to fundraise and boost eagerness to vote for their side.

Here is what to know about the abortion issue and how it is playing out in Wisconsin's fall elections.

Where Tim Michels, GOP candidate for governor, stands on abortion policy

The Supreme Court ruling has forced traditionally anti-abortion candidates like Evers' Republican challenger Tim Michels to confront questions about their views as potential real policies instead of speaking about hypothetical situations.

Until two weeks ago, Michels had enthusiastically supported the state's abortion ban enacted in 1849, once calling it an exact mirror of his position on the issue and defending his position against critics.

But in September, Michels changed course and said he would sign legislation that added exceptions to the ban — for girls and women who have been raped or become pregnant as a result of incest.

"I've made my position on abortion very clear," Michels said during a news conference Tuesday in Baraboo. "What people want to talk about, they want to talk about reducing crime. They want to talk about reducing inflation. They want to talk about getting more money in their pockets, and they want better schools here in Wisconsin.

"If the people bring that before me, I understand that it is not an authoritarian government, that it is a representative democracy. And I would sign that bill."

Tony Evers pursues lawsuit to nullify Wisconsin's 1849 abortion ban

Democrats gather on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Oct. 4 to rally for overturning the state's abortion ban. Speaking is state Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison.
Democrats gather on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Oct. 4 to rally for overturning the state's abortion ban. Speaking is state Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison.

While Evers' special session call was rejected by Republican lawmakers, the governor is still in court battling them over the law.

Earlier this summer, Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban, arguing subsequent abortion laws passed while Roe v. Wade was in effect nullified the 1849 law.

The suit could be tied up in the courts long after the November election, however, pushing Democrats to try the special session as another way to rally support for their candidates.

"We have to win. We cannot afford to have Wisconsin become the worst state in the union," Evers said at a rally outside of the Capitol.

"We have a great state here. People love living in Wisconsin. But by God, if we go down the wrong path in this November race, this will be a worse state," he said, warning of lower standards for obstetricians and gynecologists if the state's abortion law prevents training them to perform abortions.

What polling shows about views on abortion access in Wisconsin

While statewide polling shows a majority of voters favor access to abortion and oppose the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, how that opinion will motivate voters is more complicated.

A Marquette University Law School poll conducted in September shows support for abortion access but that voters are more concerned about a host of other issues.

Democratic voters are more concerned about abortion than Republicans, but the issue is motivating both groups of voters who say they are very concerned about abortion, according to Marquette poll director Charles Franklin. Among independent voters, the issue isn't as motivating.

Evers called for lawmakers to take up legislation that would allow statewide referendums, as a pathway to have voters decide the state's abortion policy — the same vehicle Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has said he wants to use to decide how much access women should have to the procedure.

But Johnson also has criticized Evers as being divisive for proposing the idea he also backs.

How Democrats and Republicans are campaigning on the issue

Republicans like Johnson and Michels are instead focusing almost exclusively on public safety, airing television ads tying Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running against Johnson, to criminals who have been paroled over the last four years. Meanwhile, Evers' television campaign is focused all on the issue of abortion.

More: Ron Johnson touts universal school choice as the remedy for rising crime

This battle of appealing to voters' concerns has turned Wisconsin airwaves over to campaigns, with 24,000 ads running just in the first two weeks of September related to both statewide races.

According to the Wesleyan Media Project, more ads ran in the U.S. Senate race than any other state. In the race for governor, just Texas and Florida outpaced Wisconsin in the number of ads despite Wisconsin having less than one-third of the population of both states.

More: Group reports $55 million in TV ad buys in Wisconsin governor's race, making it most expensive in the country

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What to know about how abortion is shaping Wisconsin election races