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Abortion becomes front-line issue in Wisconsin midterms

Abortion has catapulted to the front of Wisconsin’s midterm races for governor and U.S. Senate in the wake of news that the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v
Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in Washington. A...
Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a Politico report released Monday. Whatever the outcome, the Politico report represents an extremely rare breach of the court's secretive deliberation process, and on a case of surpassing importance. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)(Jose Luis Magana | AP)
Published: May. 3, 2022 at 4:32 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Abortion catapulted to the front of Wisconsin’s midterm races for governor and U.S. Senate on Tuesday in the wake of news that the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which would make nearly all abortions illegal in Wisconsin.

Democrats looked to capitalize on anger over the possibility. Republicans were joyful at the prospect that the nearly 50-year-old ruling could be overturned, while also expressing caution given that the court emphasized that no final decision had been made.

“It’s about time!” Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch tweeted on Monday.

Abortion rights were already expected to be a major dividing line issue in races for governor and U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. But if the justices follow through, it could serve to energize Democrats hoping to defeat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and reelect Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

“Democrats need to act today,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Senate candidate, tweeted. Barnes renewed his call on the Senate to abolish the filibuster to make it possible to pass laws protecting abortion rights. The other top candidates — Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski — made the same pleas.

Evers joined with 16 other governors in sending congressional leaders a letter urging them to enact abortion protections.

Johnson did not directly address the possibility of Roe being overturned, but instead said the leak of the draft ruling was an “unprecedented breach.” Johnson has previously voiced support for state control of abortion laws.

Wisconsin's law banning abortions passed in 1849. It was made unenforceable by Roe, but if that ruling is overturned the state law would be back in effect. That would make performing abortions in Wisconsin a crime punishable by up to six years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. There is an exception for when a mother’s life is in danger, but not for rape or incest.

Evers' Republican challengers have called for Roe to be overturned and they do not support making exceptions in state law. Kleefisch, construction business co-owner Tim Michels and business owner Kevin Nicholson all said Monday they welcome Roe being overturned. State Rep. Timothy Ramthun has described himself as “100% pro-life without exceptions.”

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who is also up for reelection, on Tuesday reiterated what he first said in December that if Roe were overturned, he would not investigate alleged violations of the state ban or prosecute anyone. But such prosecutions would most likely be brought by county district attorneys.

Kaul predicted a flurry of litigation over whether Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban would “spring back to life." He said he wouldn't decide whether the state Justice Department would bring a legal challenge until after the Supreme Court rules.

Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, has worked for years to ban abortions. She said no one should “rejoice” before the opinion is final.

Over the past decade, voter support in Wisconsin for keeping abortion legal has consistently been around 60% in polls by the Marquette University Law School.

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.