In Wisconsin, GOP Lawmakers Weigh How Much to Emphasize Abortion


While the current political environment in Wisconsin favors GOP lawmakers devoted to the anti-choice agenda, politicians hoping to appeal to a wider audience may need to reconsider how to gain the support of voters both inside and outside their base while balancing the need for support from the major anti-choice action groups. It’s a tenuous path to navigate, and for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is believed to have aspirations for higher office, a closer look at a GOP colleague’s fate could serve as a warning of the dangers ahead.

State Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) will be up for re-election in 2014. Dubbed the “last moderate” by the Capital Times, Schultz has expressed misgivings about the extremist anti-abortion (and anti-labor) policies pushed by his party.

Schultz is now urging his fellow Republicans to consider being more cautious when it comes to future legislation, especially bills restricting the right to choose. “It’s a huge mistake if your ear is not in tune where people are,” Schultz said in an interview with the Associated Press. “And we were pushing people too fast. All we’re going to do is panic people and this is going to blow up if we don’t begin to moderate on some of this stuff.” Schultz said his statement has nothing to do with the next election.

According to the Capital Times, Schultz’s challenger, state Rep. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) has a fundraising lead. Marklein has previously received support from the anti-choice group Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL). Schultz opposes abortion except for victims of sexual assault, and, in a state whose conservative politics have been taken over by anti-choice and “pro-family” special interest groups, that exception is nearly enough to oust him from the party.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that Wisconsin Right to Life and the more extreme Pro-Life Wisconsin have collectively spent some $110,000 lobbying in the 2011-12 legislative cycle and about $150,000 on electioneering since 2008. But their legislative influence as a whole is vastly disproportionate to their financial impact. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls WRTL’s endorsement a must-have that “can make or break candidates in Republican primaries.” The group’s past support of Marklein coupled with its strict opposition to abortion could drive Schultz out of the running.

Moreover, WRTL is coming off a highly successful start to the legislative session. One of the organization’s key priorities—a mandatory ultrasound bill that included an admitting privileges requirement that would have caused two of the state’s four abortion clinics to close—was signed into law by the governor, though the admitting privileges mandate has been blocked. With their clout being proven throughout the legislative session, there is little reason to expect WRTL to weaken its grip on the state legislative body.

Unlike Schultz, Gov. Walker has little need to try to shore up his support with local anti-choice political groups. He has long been a favorite of both Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin. As Wisconsin Right to Life President Barbara Lyons told the Journal Sentinel, “We go a long ways back with Scott. I’ve known Scott since he was a college student at Marquette and he was the head of the Students for Life group. So he is not a Johnny-come-lately on the issue at all.”

Over the years, Gov. Walker has signed some of the most extreme legislation to restrict access to abortion and birth control in the nation. However, now that he is considering re-election, his campaign will need to decide if the extreme anti-choice position is one that will resonate with everyone in the state.

Gov. Walker is already attempting to downplay abortion as a campaign issue, telling reporters that it represents only a small part of his overall governing platform. “In the last two and a half years, I have signed hundreds and hundreds of bills into law; about 96 percent of them have been bipartisan. … I think I’ve signed four or five that have to do in any way with abortion,” Walker told the Washington Post just a few weeks after signing a mandatory ultrasound and targeted regulation of abortion provider bill into law. Of those “four or five” pieces of abortion-related legislation, the most recent bill would have closed half the clinics in the state if allowed to go into effect, and a prior bill made it so providers in the state could not offer medication abortions for well over a year.

Although Walker is currently trying to modify the impact of his anti-choice agenda, it may be a short-lived shift. With no current GOP frontrunner for the 2016 presidential election, numerous names are being run up the flagpole. Political analyst Larry Sabato has placed Gov. Walker into the top tier of candidates, putting him neck-and-neck with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Gov. Walker’s disadvantages? “He might not be able to deliver his home state,” according to Sabato.

To win Wisconsin, either in re-election in a gubernatorial race or in a general election in 2016, Gov. Walker needs to appeal to a constituency where 63 percent of the likely voters believe that abortion should be legal in all or most situations. As a favorite of the state’s anti-choice action groups, and as the person who is responsible for signing recent anti-choice legislation in the state, winning over pro-choice voters could be an impossible task.

Will Gov. Walker follow Schultz’s advice and risk losing his base? Or will he stay with his anti-choice allies as he moves into re-election mode? Either direction poses risks for his political future.

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