New fight over abortion jolts Democratic battle to take on Johnson in Wisconsin

“I think it eliminates whatever advantage Republicans have,” said Tom Nelson, an Outagamie County executive who’s a Democrat running for Senate, about the ruling last week.

The battle shaping up in Wisconsin is emblematic of the landscape confronting Democrats nationwide. The top candidates — Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Nelson — are hoping that fury from their liberal base outweighs backlash Democrats may face over high consumer prices and Biden’s low approval ratings.

For Democrats, their best bet at codifying abortion rights nationally remains at keeping the Senate and picking up at least two seats in the fall, potentially here in Wisconsin and also Pennsylvania, while holding onto a handful of swing seats and keeping their endangered House majority — an extremely tall order. Then, they could potentially have enough support to change the filibuster rules next year and pass abortion rights on a straight majority, something backed by all the leading Wisconsin Democratic candidates.

Wisconsin, a perennial battleground divided between its liberal enclaves mainly in the south and conservative rural regions throughout, has emerged as ground zero in the battle over abortion rights. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the state is now following an 1849 law that bans abortions and provides no exceptions for rape or incest. There are exceptions granted to save a woman’s life, but only after the signatures of three doctors — a standard that activists say can be onerous if not impossible to meet, especially in rural areas.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has vowed to give clemency to ensure that abortion access will remain unimpeded. But even that has abortion providers uncertain whether they can trust that will hold, given Evers faces a tough reelection himself and how the matter would be handled by a new administration is anyone’s guess.

“I have been frustrated that my own party has not prioritized this and trying to get this done, and we’ve had 50 years,” Godlewski said.

In interviews with CNN this week, all of the top Wisconsin Senate Democratic candidates tried to project their progressive bona fides on abortion. Lasry, 34, noted his wife is a top official at Planned Parenthood Wisconsin. Barnes said his mother had to make “the difficult decision” to get an abortion before he was born.

“And if she was forced to carry to term, that would have created all sorts of additional mental and physical health issues for her. I wouldn’t be here today,” Barnes said.

The candidates all said they would eliminate the filibuster to pass a bill in Congress restoring abortion rights. None said they back restrictions, even late in pregnancy.

“That’s not up to a politician to decide,” Barnes told CNN.

Yet the candidates differ on expanding the Supreme Court to add justices. Barnes expresses an openness — “It’s a conversation I’m more than willing to have” — while Lasry and Godlewski have yet to embrace it and Nelson boasts of being “the only candidate” to back the idea.

“I think this is an appropriate solution,” Nelson said.

Johnson, a two-term senator, has said he supports the court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and has tried to redirect attention elsewhere. In a local radio interview on Wednesday, he was asked for his view on the ruling and Wisconsin Democratic state officials’ effort to prevent the enforcement of the state’s 1849 law. Johnson at first called for more media coverage of a Texas human smuggling incident that left dozens dead — saying it “is actually much larger news” — before saying he approved of the new state-by-state approach on abortion.
“This really needs to be decided by ‘we the people’ in each state through probably multiple elections, with state legislators and governors in the end passing laws in their individual states,” Johnson said on WSAU. “And then over time we will probably develop somewhat of a consensus nationally.”
It’s unclear how the Supreme Court’s decision will affect this year’s fight for control of Congress. Inflation remains Wisconsin voters’ top issue of concern, according to a June Marquette University Law School poll, and Biden’s approval has fallen to 40%, his lowest in the survey since taking office.

The Biden drag

But even as Democrats see abortion as a top-tier issue, they have to contend with the worst midterm environment since Johnson first won his Senate race a dozen years ago.

Asked if he thinks Biden should run in 2024, Barnes deflected: “Well, I’m focused on this race right now. We still gotta get past November 2022. We still have to expand the majority in the US Senate. I’m more than happy to have that conversation after we decide this race.”

“The President needs to do what’s best for him,” Godlewski said when asked if she thought Biden should mount a reelection bid.

Lasry, who worked in the Obama White House before his billionaire father purchased the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014, said he’d back a Biden reelection bid.

“I think if the President wants to run again, he should run again,” Lasry said.

When asked about Biden dragging down the ticket, Barnes added: “This is a hyper local race. We’re focused on those bread-and-butter issues that are impacting people at home.”

The candidates have their own liabilities that their critics are spotlighting.

Lasry, who, like the 40-year-old Godlewski, has vast personal wealth and is largely funding his campaign, has come under some criticism for relocating from New York to take the Bucks job in 2014.

“I don’t think New York needs a third senator,” said Nelson, who is 46.

Lasry defended his move.

“Wisconsin’s my home, raising my family here,” he said in an interview at a redevelopment site in Milwaukee. “And what voters are more worried about are not where someone was, but what someone’s going to do and representing them and what they’ve done.”

Barnes, 35, has won the backing of some leading liberal voices, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and he’s already come under attack from Republicans over immigration and his support for ending cash bail, as some Democratic critics fear he would turn off middle-of-the-road voters.

Barnes, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and the second African American to hold statewide office in Wisconsin, scoffed at that notion.

“My campaign is the only campaign in the Democratic primary leading with independent voters. This is the only campaign that has been generating any sort of enthusiasm,” Barnes said. He added: “On an issue like cash bail, a person staying in jail before their trial shouldn’t be based on their ability to pay.”

Johnson’s controversies

The Democratic candidates have tried to make the race about the incumbent and his series of controversial statements — whether it’s advocating for hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 or spreading anti-vaccine misinformation during the pandemic. Johnson has raised questions about whether Trump supporters were the ones largely responsible for the violence on January 6, 2021, and he was involved in an effort to send then-Vice President Mike Pence a slate of fake electors on the day he was presiding over the certification of Biden’s victory.

The Democratic rhetoric has been sharp, with Barnes and Nelson calling on Johnson to resign and Lasry saying: “If you are trying to literally get false electors to the vice president to ensure that a fair election gets overturned, that’s not what this country is about and that is treacherous and seditious.”

Johnson, 67, has downplayed or dismissed the criticism — and he defended the most recent controversy by saying it had been simply staff-level discussions that took place and it’s a “nothing burger” of a story.

But on Tuesday, Johnson was preaching “unity” at a church and praising a faith-based inner-city jobs program he co-founded years ago, acknowledging that political divisiveness in the country is taking a toll on him.

“As I travel around and talk to people, I often ask the question, ‘Aren’t you just tired of all the anger and division?’ ” Johnson asked. “God, I am. It’s exhausting.”

“This nation needs healing and unity,” he added.

After the event, Johnson bolted out the back door. Asked by CNN if he could take a question, he responded: “No.”

CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.