The significance of abortion in Wisconsin's 2022 election

The Dobbs v. Jackson ruling vaulted a long-contentious political issue to new prominence in advance of the midterm vote, including in the race for governor between Gov. Tony Evers and Tim Michels.

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

October 28, 2022

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During midterm elections, victory often comes down to one thing: Which party does a better job of getting their voters to the polls — turnout.

In the fall 2022 election, Democrats are hoping the issue of abortion will not only energize their base, but pull in swing voters who may have voted Republican in the past when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land.

“When abortion rights are under attack, what do we do?” called one protester at a September 2022 rally outside the Wisconsin Capitol Building. “Stand up, fight back,” responded the surrounding demonstrators.

When the United States Supreme Court overturned  Roe v. Wade, the six justices issuing the ruling overturned the constitutional right for women to seek an abortion, but they also overturned decades of conventional wisdom on just how much the issue of abortion can impact an election.

“It was this kind of crazy jaw dropping moment of like, ‘Oh my God, they did it,'” said Amaya Barker, a volunteer for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, the organizing arm of Planned Parenthood.

Barker said there was an immediate surge in the number of people looking to get involved.

“I’ve seen a lot more people being like, ‘Wow, I actually have to do something now about this,'” she said

Sarah Berndsen signed up, and her first event was the Bayview Bash in Milwaukee, where the point was to remind people Planned Parenthood was still open providing healthcare services, just not abortions.

“It’s been a really positive reaction,” Berndsen said. “We have had people coming up really appreciative that we’re out here providing information.”

While their stand at the Sept. 17 festival didn’t advocate for any political candidates, the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County was next door and abortion rights were front and center.

“For many, many voters, especially women across the state, it has been something that has galvanized a level of political outrage and commitment to change that will reshape this election this fall, said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Wikler thinks abortion will swing votes everywhere, not just Milwaukee and Madison.

“If you knock on doors in rural Wisconsin, in suburbs, in cities alike, there are people even who voted Republican before who think this is much too far,” he said.

“I was very shocked by just the sheer response that people had in this area,” said Jessa Michie, a digital organizer for Planned Parenthood Advocates based in Stevens Point in central Wisconsin.

Michie said they were overwhelmed at first by the number of people looking to volunteer.

“A lot of people who haven’t done this before, this really activated a lot of folks who were brand new to it,” she said.

The focus now is translating that energy into turnout.

“We’re very, very focused on voting. Getting out the vote is the most important thing that we can do at this point in Wisconsin,” Michie added.

Planned Parenthood Advocates isn’t the only group talking about abortion with voters.

“These are our materials — this is focusing on our congressional candidates,” explained Gracie Skogman, the legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life  while showing flyers the group is handing out while canvassing to another volunteer for the group.

“The goal is that we can go to any voter, regardless of where they stand, and give them something that we hope ultimately will encourage them to support pro-life candidates,” Skogman said.

Skogman said the case that overturned RoeDobbs v. Jackson —was a victory, but not the end of the debate.

“We’ve seen that people are, of course,rejoicing and happy, but then they think that it’s time to go home and stop talking about this. But it’s more important now than ever before,” she said.

Skogman explained it can be a delicate conversation.

“I went earlier this week and people were not so receptive,” she said

“We know that this is a very emotional and polarizing issue on both sides of the aisle,” Skogman added.

Wisconsin Right to Life would like to shift the conversation to what comes next, specifically whether a Republican governor and Legislature will provide state funding to pregnancy resource centers, the non-profits that often open up across the street from abortion clinics and counsel pregnant women away from abortion.

“I think our best way to move forward is on the unifying issue of pregnancy resource centers, having conversations about paid family leave. These are bipartisan issues,” said Skogman.

Michie said voters aren’t quite ready to move on.

“I definitely think that people still have more to say and a lot more feelings about losing that access to care. I don’t think that folks are ready to move on at all,” she said “I think that they’re more angry about this and more energized than they were before.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is hoping to capitalize on that energy — he’s been running ads hitting his opponent, Republican Tim Michels, on abortion.

“He said it’s quote, not unreasonable for the state government to mandate rape victims to give birth,” said the narrator in one Evers ad.

“Tim Michels is way too radical for Wisconsin,” a woman declared in another Evers ad.

“Do I think it’s an important issue in the race? Yes,” said the governor. “Look at where my opponent is on this and on that issue — so I do I think it’s going to be a factor. Yes, absolutely.”

“Almost every single attack that’s out there on Republican candidates has to do with Dobbs,” said Paul Farrow, chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

He said the Evers ads are over the top.

“I think our conversation of making sure the health of the woman and health of the child is just as important, is kind of tampering down what the left is saying, that we’re trying to criminalize women left and right,” Farrow said.

“Gov. Evers and the left have spent tens of millions of dollars mischaracterizing my position, calling me a radical,” said Michels during an Oct. 14 debate. “I am pro-life and I make no apologies for that, but I’ll tell you who the real radical is, the real radical is Gov. Evers.”

Michels did not agree to an interview for this story, but has had trouble being consistent in his position on abortion.

Without the protection of Roe v. Wade, Wisconsin reverted back to an 1849 law on abortion that only provides exceptions if two doctors feel it is needed to save the life of the mother.

Michels originally campaigned on his support for that law, but has since said he would support a bill that provides exceptions for rape and incest.

“I’ve said if a bill is put before me from the Legislature, which is a direct representation of the people, and it has an exception in it for rape and incest, that I would sign that bill,” Michels said at the debate

A few days later, he added another change.

“I will never arrest a doctor, as they’re saying. I’m a reasonable guy,” Michels said during an Oct. 18 speech to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.

However, under the 1849 law, doctors providing an abortion can be arrested, and his campaign had to clarify that Michels just wouldn’t be the one doing the arresting.

“The (district attorneys) should enforce all laws. The governor is an executive. He’s not a DA or beat cop arresting anyone,” read a statement issued by his campaign.

Evers doesn’t buy it.

“There’s no way I believe it and no way people in Wisconsin believe you’re going to have this hardcore — something that’s part of your your your insides — position that rape or incest is not something that you should exclude from this law. Never. This is important for me because of my convictions. And then all of a sudden, the next day, you say, well, I guess I don’t have any convictions,” Evers said.

Michie said Michels is muddying the water.

“That’s the intention, I think, in a lot of cases is to just sort of muddle the issue and confuse people,” she said.

However, Skogman is clear on where Wisconsin Right to Life stands.

“Our position is we are not in favor of adding a rape and incest exception, she said.

“My only concern is, let’s say there’s a rape case,” said one man to Skogman as she canvassed.

Even if their voters at the doors have a different opinion.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to indicate Gracie Skogman is legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life.

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