Primary challenge stirs up the race for Wisconsin Secretary of State

Challenge to Doug La Follette latest in a year full of drama

By: - April 21, 2022 6:30 am
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette addressing the DPW convention (CC BY 2.0) 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0

The head of the Dane County Democratic Party, Alexia Sabor, will challenge Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette in an August primary, Todd Richmond of the Associated Press reported Wednesday. 

Democratic consultant Sachin Chheda confirmed that he is helping Sabor prepare for her run and that she will make an official announcement soon. 

“After 40-plus years and having essentially zero accomplishments, he should just step aside because the time has come,” Chheda told the Examiner, explaining the Democratic move to unseat La Follette.

Sabor did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

La Follette’s office is at the center of national political controversy, as Republicans across the country seek to elect pro-Trump secretaries of state in an effort to gain control of election administration following false claims of voter fraud. State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), the Republican candidate in Wisconsin, supports putting the secretary of state in charge of overseeing elections, taking that power away from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“In a lot of states a Republican governor and a Republican secretary of state could throw out the election and send their own people to Washington,” La Follette tells the Examiner. “If Evers is defeated and the legislators are willing, something like that could happen in Wisconsin.”

“If we’d have talked two years ago I might have said, ‘I’m not going to run again; I’m going to retire,’” La Follette adds. “But a lot of people have suggested it would be very good if I ran because I’m the most electable Democrat.”

A descendant of the legendary progressive governor and U.S. Sen. Fighting Bob La Follette, La Follette has won his down-ballot race consistently since he first took office in 1974. He stepped down after that first term to make an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, then recaptured the office again in 1982. He was re-elected nine times after that, including when Wisconsin elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker and all the other Democrats in statewide races lost. In 2018, when Gov. Tony Evers beat Walker by 1.1 percentage points, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Attorney General Josh Kaul each won by about the same 1-point margin, La Follette was the second highest statewide vote-getter after Sen. Tammy Baldwin, sailing to re-election by a margin of 5.5%.

Which raises the question for Democrats: in such a high-stakes year, why mess with success? Wisconsin’s secretary of state has very little power, thanks to the efforts of Republican governors who have rendered the office nearly ineffectual on La Follette’s watch. But holding onto the seat could be critical to future elections, if only by blocking Republicans’ plans to put it to their own use.

Chheda draws a contrast between La Follette and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who is running for U.S. Senate this year. Godlewski has raised the profile of her own little-noticed executive position, giving speeches, raising money, and energizing people to defend democracy. “He has done none of that,” Chheda says of La Follette.

“Competition is good and Doug should have to work for this,” says 101.5 WIBA FM radio personality and progressive podcaster John “Sly” Sylvester. But, he notes, La Follette has been “consistently competitive.” The challenge “doesn’t make me angry,” Sylvester adds. “I’m just not in a Don Quixote kind of mood this year.”

Previous efforts to unseat La Follette by Democratic primary challengers have not been successful. La Follette resoundingly defeated Madison city council member Arvina Martin in the 2018 primary with 65.9% of the vote to Martin’s 34.1%. In 2006, Scot Ross, former director of the progressive advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, challenged La Follette and got 28.7% of the vote.

“The Dane County liberals don’t like me,” La Follette tells the Examiner. People close to the former Democratic governor he calls “the Jim Doyle crowd” have helped raise money for his primary challengers, he says. Maybe it’s because he’s a “maverick,” he suggests. An independent thinker who walks to work in a broad-brimmed hat he is a familiar figure at the Dane County Farmers Market where, in election years, he carries a clipboard and collects signatures wearing his trademark vest emblazoned with the words “I’m Doug La Follette” (“so people don’t think I’m a religious nut or something”). He doesn’t see any substantive reason for the rejection by fellow Democrats. “I’ve always supported Democrats. I can’t think of a single time I’ve supported a Republican,” he says.

Difficult to collect signatures

In any event, he concedes, “it’s going to be difficult this year to collect those 3,000 signatures” to get on the ballot, mostly because of the pandemic. “Most people don’t have the chutzpah to take a clipboard out and talk to people,” he says, noting proudly that he collected 1,500 signatures himself for his last campaign, working for three weeks from 11:00 to 2:00 every day. “Other people would collect four or six or 25,” he says. “This year I can’t do that. The virus hasn’t gone away and in fact cases are going up, and at my age I’m not going to take the risk of getting the virus.”

Instead, he was hoping that county Democratic parties around the state would circulate his nominating papers at their meetings. “It wouldn’t be that hard and I was counting on that,” he says. “But now that there’s a primary they’re going to say no.”

“I was very optimistic until 9:00 this morning when AP called,” he added in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “No one had announced. A number of Democratic parties around the state had said sure, we’ll help. Now they’ll back out.”

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Will he shift gears? 

“I can’t think of another gear to find. I don’t have four-speed transmission,” La Follette quips. “I don’t think I’m going to take a clipboard and go up and down State Street. There are some good places — I used to stand outside the Wilson Street office building. I don’t know if I want to take the risk to do that. I don’t think people are going to stop.”

La Follette says he’s used to getting a mix of reactions when he’s out stumping for signatures — friends and Democrats are happy to see him; occasionally a Republican voter will say something mean.

“Some people walk away and avoid me because they don’t like talking to people,” he says. “There are a lot more people like that now — people who are anti-politics, anti-government.”

This year, “I imagine I’d have a lot of trouble.”

“I tell everyone, ‘I’m Doug La Follette and I’m running for Secretary of State. I need to gather 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot.’ Imagine having to say that 100,000 times. So I’m not sure I can find another gear.”

Even with his long record of winning statewide general elections, just the threat of a primary challenge in this perilous year and the effect it has on signature-gathering could knock La Follette out.

John Nichols, who has covered politics for the Capital Times and the Nation for decades, first got to know La Follette more than 50 years ago when Nichols was a kid growing up in western Racine County and La Follette was part of the wave of young progressive activists who jumped into congressional races to oppose the Vietnam War. 

La Follette, an Earth Day organizer and a cofounder of Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade (now known as Clean Wisconsin) “entered a Democratic primary in 1970, along with Les Aspin and former Congressman Gerald Flynn, hoping to take on a very right-wing Republican congressman named Henry Schadeberg,” Nichols recalls. “Doug ran to the left. Anti-war, pro-civil rights, pro-union. Passionate about the environment, where he was way ahead of the curve. Doug finished narrowly ahead in the initial count, but then lost by 20 votes in a recount that gave the nomination to Aspin, who went on to beat Schadeberg. Doug turned right around and got elected to the state Senate in 1972, and then as Secretary of State in 1974. He was a rising star back then.”

In 2011, when Walker and Republicans in the Legislature pushed through Act 10, ending most collective bargaining rights for most public employees, La Follette used his power as secretary of state to hold back publication of the new law, giving unions time to finalize their contracts.

During his long tenure as secretary of state, La Follette watched the powers of his office shrink. “When I started we had 48 people working in the office,” he recalls. “Now there’s one.” The office itself is now a tiny space in the basement of the Capitol. “Even now we get calls from people from all over the country who want to incorporate or need a notary,” La Follette says. He has to explain that those functions have all been moved to the Department of Financial Institutions – an agency created by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson to give the governor more control over matters that used to be handled by the secretary of state. 

This year, “there are only two issues,” La Follette says. “One is the need to restore the duties to the office that were stripped away by Govs Thompson and Walker. I’ve campaigned on that for 20 years with no luck.”

The other issue is the national Republican drive to seize control of elections.

“Remember what happened in Florida in 2000?” La Follette says, referring to the role played by Katherine Harris, the Republican secretary of state who certified George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore during a recount of the hotly disputed presidential election there. Today Republican secretaries of state, who have power over election administration in some states, likewise want to “fiddle with the elections,” he says.

In Wisconsin, until the Walker era, five retired judges made up the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversaw elections. “They did very well,” La Follette says. “During the recall against Walker they made decisions Walker didn’t like. So the Republican Legislature eliminated the elections board.” The entity they created, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, with equal numbers of appointees from each party, “may be better than a secretary of state, but it’s not good,” he says, pointing out that the commission is designed to deadlock.

As for his own election campaign, “I wouldn’t say I’m depressed,” La Follette says. “I’m a big boy and I’ve been around the block a few times, but I’m discouraged to have to go through this experience this year when things are so important.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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