Republican Michels of Wisconsin has backtracked on his abortion pledge

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A Republican running for governor in Wisconsin suggested Tuesday that he does not support enforcing the state’s near-total abortion ban, saying “I will never arrest a doctor” before his campaign retracted his comment.

Tim Michels is in a tight race with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and abortion has been a big issue. Michels, who is backed by former President Donald Trump, said in the Republican primary that he supported an 1849 state law that made nearly all abortions by doctors a felony.

But last month, Michels reversed course and said he would sign legislation granting exemptions in rape and incest cases. He reiterated that position Tuesday during a Q&A at the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, but took it a step further.

“I’ll never arrest a doctor, as they say,” Michels said. “I’m a sensible guy.”

Under Wisconsin’s abortion ban, doctors who perform abortions can be found guilty of a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. The governor is not responsible for enforcing the law, but Michels’ comment suggested he does not support anyone arresting a doctor who violates it.

Michels’ spokeswoman Anna Kelly tried to clarify his comment, saying district attorneys, not the governor, enforce the laws.

“He’s not a prosecutor or an arresting officer,” she said.

Evers campaign spokesman Sam Roecker accused Michels of trying to hide his true support for “closing down abortion doctors,” noting his longtime support for the abortion ban.

“He’s either lying to voters today, in a desperate attempt to hide his radical views, or he’s been lying to them for the last six months,” Roecker said.

Democratic district attorneys in the state’s two largest abortion counties before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade said they would not enforce the state’s ban, which was enacted before women had the right to vote and before the Civil War.

Abortion has entered every major race in Wisconsin this election cycle.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit, supported by Evers, seeking to overturn the state ban. His Republican opponent, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, said he wants to allow district attorneys to cross county lines to enforce the ban.

This is currently not allowed by state law unless the district attorney requests assistance. Kaul said he would not enforce the abortion ban.

Evers and his allies are spending tens of millions of dollars in television advertising to bash Michels on his previous support for the 1849 bill, which he called an “exact mirror” of his position. Evers is challenging the law in court and has twice called special sessions of the Legislature in an effort to repeal the ban and create a way to put the issue before voters. Republicans rejected both proposals.

Democrats are trying to make the governor’s race a referendum on abortion, pointing to public opinion polls that show broad bipartisan support for legal abortion and at least exemptions for rape and incest.

Michels said Tuesday that the attacks on him on abortion are “simply not there.”

Evers said he would not sign the bill granting exemptions to abortion for rape and incest if he leaves in place the fundamental abortion ban. Evers also said he would grant clemency to any doctor convicted under the law and sentenced to prison.

While Democrats tried to race on abortion, Michels focused on crime. He pledged Tuesday to reduce crime across the state and in Milwaukee, promising that “everybody’s life will be better.”

Michels also promised “massive” tax reform, including lowering income tax to an almost flat rate for all filers of around 5%.

After the event, Michels, answering a journalist’s question, said that he would “certainly” accept the results of the November elections after not fully committing to it. He also promised to sign a series of bills vetoed by Evers that Republican supporters said were designed to make elections more secure. A number of measures have made absentee voting more difficult.

“No one two years from now, four years from now, six years from now, whatever, will ever have a question about the integrity of elections here in Wisconsin,” Michels promised.

Michels also suggested he would be open to breaking up the state Department of Natural Resources into two agencies, one to deal with hunters and one focused on business regulations.

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