With Roe v. Wade overturned, the debate over when and if abortion should be legal in Wisconsin is now an internal one and puts a spotlight on the race for the state’s attorney general, a statewide elected official with the ability to either challenge or defend abortion restrictions.
Incumbent Josh Kaul, a Democrat who was first elected in a tight race in 2018, faces reelection in November. Three Republicans, former state Sen. Adam Jarchow, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, and attorney Karen Mueller, have signed up to challenge him.
With a majority of Wisconsinites supporting abortion in most or all cases, Kaul has made the issue central to his campaign, doubling down by not just refusing to enforce the state’s 1849 abortion ban but launching a direct challenge against it in court. Similar races across the country, especially in purple states with split party control, are also receiving increased attention.
Jarchow, Toney and Mueller will face off for the Republican nomination in an Aug. 9 primary election. Each has been critical of Kaul’s stance on abortion and said they would enforce the ban if elected.
Though none of the candidates have particularly high name recognition statewide — contests for attorney general are very rarely polled — Kaul has sought to raise his visibility in recent months. He has pledged to not direct DOJ resources toward enforcing the abortion ban.
What does an attorney general do?
Wisconsin’s chief legal authority, the attorney general oversees the Department of Justice, which includes a range of law enforcement agencies that investigate major crimes, including domestic terrorism, sexual abuse and corruption. The department has more than 800 employees, including about 20 prosecutors.
The attorney general represents the governor and state agencies in major lawsuits. Kaul and Evers, for example, launched a suit in June to strike down the state’s 1849 abortion ban. Kaul can also argue in Evers’ defense.
The attorney general has wide jurisdiction and can choose to launch independent suits, or direct the Justice Department’s legal personnel to help district attorneys.
Just one district attorney with an abortion clinic located in their county, Sheboygan County’s Joel Urmanski, said he would enforce the ban. Kaul has pledged not to help him.
On the flip side, a Republican attorney general could sue clinics and doctors in the liberal enclaves of Madison and Milwaukee, where district attorneys said they would not enforce the ban.
Groups of attorneys general can also team up to sue over federal legislation. Kaul’s predecessor, Republican Brad Schimel, led 20 Republican AGs in a 2018 effort to abolish Obamacare. Kaul was elected and pulled Wisconsin from the legal effort a year later.
The attorney general’s power has seesawed in recent years. Shortly after Kaul was elected in 2018, but before he took office, Republicans in the state Legislature convened an overnight session to pass a series of “lame-duck” laws that greatly curbed powers of both Kaul and Evers. Kaul was required to seek approval from lawmakers before settling certain cases.
Numerous lawsuits were launched against the lame-duck laws, and courts generally sided with the Republicans. A circuit judge ruled that some provisions were unconstitutional in May 2022, but the decision is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Attorneys general serve for four years and earn around $148,000 annually.
Who is Josh Kaul?
Kaul became the state’s 45th attorney general in 2019 after winning a close election against Republican incumbent Schimel. His mother, Peg Lautenschlager, had held that office around a decade earlier.
The Pittsburgh-born lawyer grew up in Oshkosh and Fond du Lac and attended Yale and Stanford Law. Kaul was in private practice for three years until 2010, when he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. Kaul handled a federal case involving large-scale heroin operations and gang members. In 2014, he moved back to Wisconsin and joined a law firm in Madison.
During his time in office, Kaul has focused on increasing the pace at which DNA evidence is tested by state crime, though metrics for a number of items tested and median processing times for certain categories of evidence have worsened in the last few years.
In 2019, Kaul joined a multistate effort against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which resulted in a $65 million settlement.
In 2021, he launched a probe into faith leader abuse and said the Department of Justice would request documents from dioceses and religious orders in the state. Advocacy groups have criticized Kaul for moving too slowly.
He also sought to block subpoenas issued to state election officials by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in relation to a 2020 elections probe, which Kaul criticized as too vague.
“So it’s a very stark contrast between using the Wisconsin Department of Justice as Gableman Part Two, or the abortion police, versus continuing to use it to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes in Wisconsin,” Kaul said in an interview in June.
Who are the Republican challengers?
“Josh Kaul’s unwillingness to enforce the laws of Wisconsin should disqualify him from the job of Attorney General,” Jarchow said in a statement. “As a pro-life father of two, I will always support the right to life.”
Jarchow served two terms in the state Assembly representing the 28th District in northwest Wisconsin before losing a special election for a state senate seat. He attended the University of Florida for college and law school and practiced law in Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In now-deleted tweets, Jarchow has criticized former President Donald Trump, suggesting he lacks “actual political skills.”
Toney, who is serving his third term as the district attorney of Fond du Lac County, previously worked on a congressional campaign. He attended St. Norbert College and Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Toney has touted his experience as a prosecutor and said he would both enforce the abortion ban and direct resources toward district attorney’s offices if needed.
“This is and always should have been a state issue,” Toney said on Twitter. “I am pro-life and I will enforce and defend the laws as passed by the Legislature and signed into law.”
In 2021, a group of former Toney supporters wrote him a lengthy letter claiming Toney voted for Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton in the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections and expressing concern for his embrace of right-wing politics. Toney later wrote in a statement that he had voted for Trump both times.
He has also called for Evers to remove five members from the state elections commission, alleging they had violated state law.
Toney came under criticism from some GOP members for filing 10 criminal complaints related to COVID-19.
Though Jarchow entered the race six months after Toney, he has raised significantly more cash, according to his campaign.
Karen Mueller, an attorney from Chippewa Falls, was the last to enter the race. She has tied her candidacy to that of governor hopeful Tim Ramthun, who is currently polling in the single digits. Like Ramthun, Mueller backed the decertification of the 2020 presidential election.
Mueller is running on a platform of investigating hospitals that refused to administer ivermectin, an anti-parasite medication, for COVID-19 patients. Ivermectin is not an approved treatment for COVID-19 and has not been shown to decrease the likelihood of going to the hospital as a result of the disease.
“I am running for attorney general because of potential homicides in hospitals, because of vaccines — so-called vaccines,” Mueller said.
Mueller has criticized her fellow Republican opponents for not focusing enough on COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
Who’s ahead in fundraising?
Kaul started the race with a huge cash advantage and had about $1,070,000 on hand in January.
Toney raised $84,000 between his campaign launch in April 2021 and the latest round of filings in December 2021.
Jarchow, who entered the race in October 2021, loaned his campaign $10,555.13 and then announced a monthly total of $100,000 in January 2022. More filings will be made available later this month.
In 2018, when Democrats swept statewide offices in Wisconsin, Kaul won by just over 17,000 votes, or 0.6%. That means he slightly underperformed Evers, who won by 1.1%.
The overall political environment this time around favors Republicans, which could be especially true in races where candidates are not well known.
The race for attorney general is not polled, but recent releases from Marquette Law School showed other Democrats in statewide races with slight leads, including Evers.
Fifth-eight percent of respondents said that they were very concerned with abortion policy, the second highest-ranked issue after inflation concerns. The same percentage of respondents also said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 35% said it should be illegal in most or all cases. That could boost Kaul’s chances if the November election becomes a de facto referendum on abortion rights.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin attorney general 2022 election highlighted by abortion law