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Democrats face hard truths on abortion rights in Wisconsin midterm races

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state Capitol Friday, May 27, 2022, in Madison, Wis.
Scott Bauer
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state Capitol Friday, May 27, 2022, in Madison, Wis.

Rallies for abortion rights often are packed with young activists. At a recent rally in Kenosha, Wisc., Lorraine Terry was an exception.

"I'm Lorraine Terry, and I'm way too old for reproduction," is how she introduced herself. "But I've got children and granddaughters, and I cannot believe they are taking away a benefit we've had for 50 years."

Terry is 86 and remembers well what life was like before Roe v. Wade.

"I lived on the first floor where a woman in my apartment building couldn't carry a baby – tried to abort her own baby with knitting needles and died," Terry said. "She had two young children. So, I saw that. I saw the pain that happens when you can't get an abortion when you need one."

All of which makes reelecting Democratic Gov. Tony Evers really important to her.

"We have to get Evers in in the state of Wisconsin. I mean, that's our saving grace: That if we have Republican legislators, that he has the veto power," Terry said.

Wisconsin's state legislative map is considered heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. So, many Democrats see Evers as their one chance to stop whatever laws the legislature might pass.

That makes the governor's race one example of a truth some Democrats are confronting in this year's midterms: that if they score some hard-fought wins, the policy gains are uncertain and may simply amount to holding the line against further abortion restrictions after the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

That could make convincing outraged voters that it's worth it to vote for Democrats this fall a challenge. And the governor's race in Wisconsin could be a close one; it's currently rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

The Wisconsin governor is offering clemency to abortion providers

Evers has been able to take some action already — for example, he announced he would give clemency to abortion providers punished under the state's pre-Roe ban, enacted in 1849.

That matters to Hiroshi Kanno, who came out to see Evers speak in Portage.

"If he doesn't get reelected, the clemency is meaningless for health providers. And that's why I'm going to work extra hard for him," Kanno said. "I have six daughters, and one of them has had problems. And if you don't have that access, who knows what'll happen, you know?"

Evers continues to be emphatic about the importance of abortion rights, even though a lot of voters are focused on the economy.

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time, but I can tell you that when we start taking away rights from people, that does transcend inflation. You know, inflation is important. We got to take care of it. But when you're dealing with people's lives, that's really important," he said.

In Wisconsin's Senate race, the vibe is different, but similar – different, because one senator doesn't have the policy influence a governor does. Similar, because in both cases, an electoral win means at best only modest, or potential, wins for abortion rights. A Senate win in Wisconsin wouldn't mean codifying Roe unless Democrats not only controlled the Senate, but had 51 Democratic votes to overturn the filibuster.

Overturning the filibuster is a key Democratic pitch in the Senate race

Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes is a leading Democratic candidate for Senate, and spoke to NPR during a kickoff for campaign door-knockers earlier this month.

"I always tell people, yeah, of course I'll be one vote. And that's why we need 51 votes and we don't get to 51 if we don't start somewhere," he said. "And getting [Republican Senator] Ron Johnson out of the way is the key to getting us closer to 51 votes to codify the right to choose into law by getting rid of the filibuster."

Overturning the filibuster to protect abortion rights was a key part of the pitch that a Barnes doorknocker made that day. Voter Joelle Beth Timm, who answered her door, said the Dobbs decision would weigh heavily on her vote.

"I'm pretty angry, and I have some t-shirts that say 'Mind your own uterus,' so they're getting a lot of wear recently," she said. "So, yeah, it's absolutely an issue. Quite frankly, it's probably the number one issue that I've voted on in my life."

Many Democrats, like Timm, are furious at the Supreme Court. And many also are angry at party leaders like Joe Biden, believing that they haven't fought hard enough for abortion rights over the years.

Back at the Evers event, Dick Baker, chair of the Columbia County Democrats, pushed back against that frustration.

"We're working behind the scenes with our candidates and trying to turn the tide in our favor," he said. "And maybe we're often accused of being too nice, but I'd rather be too nice than the alternative."

Mayor Ann Groves Lloyd of Lodi, a town of 3,000, is much more upset with the party.

"I want the filibuster gone. You know damn well if the midterms swing the other way [to the Republicans], the filibuster will be gone in a heartbeat, and they're going to shove through a ton of conservative policies," she said. "I guess part of me just doesn't want us to be so nice anymore about what we're doing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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