Sarah Godlewski’s crusade to elect women and preserve the veto
The former candidate’s new PAC is focused on staving off a GOP supermajority
Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski at an Oct. 8, 2022 fundraiser at her home in Madison for six women candidates her PAC, Women Save the Veto, is supporting to try to stave off a Republican supermajority in the Wisconsin Legislature | Examiner photo
On a brilliant Saturday morning in October, a buzzing crowd was crammed into the kitchen of Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski’s lakefront home in Madison, sipping coffee and waiting to hear from six pro-choice women candidates running in some of Wisconsin’s most competitive legislative districts.
After dropping out of the race to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and endorsing her fellow Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Godlewski converted her campaign into a PAC called Women Win Wisconsin which aims to defeat Johnson and promote candidates who support abortion rights. One arm of the PAC, focused on legislative races, is called Women Save the Veto.
Republicans only need to gain one seat in the state Senate and five seats in the Assembly to win a supermajority, giving them enough votes to override the governor’s veto, Godlewski tells the crowd gathered at her house. By providing financial support and strategic help to a handful of candidates in tough races, Women Save the Veto aims to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The PAC will give the maximum allowable contribution to each candidate — $2,000 per Senate candidate and $1,000 per candidate for Assembly, as well as contributing to the Democratic campaign committees for both the Senate and Assembly. That’s the “hard money” side. But most of the PAC’s money will be spent on independent expenditures, mostly for digital ads. There is no limit on that type of “soft” political spending. (Another arm of Women Win Wisconsin, Women Against Ron, is devoting all of its resources to digital ads attacking Johnson by focusing on abortion rights.)
In addition, Godlewski is calling on people who donated to her Senate race to start making contributions to the down-ballot candidates she has identified.
“We really need to get people in Madison to focus on these races in other parts of the state,” she says. After her Senate bid ended, “I had a million dollars in assets, and I was like, how can we use this?” she adds. Instead of liquidating email and phone lists and other infrastructure from her campaign, she has turned them to a new purpose.
Fundraising is going well since the group launched on Sept. 15, says Ashley Franz, who was Godlewski’s political director and is now working for the PAC. But she declined to say how much they’ve raised so far.
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), whose own seat representing a solidly blue enclave is not threatened, has been helping Godlewski’s effort, traveling to the six swing districts Women Save the Veto is targeting.
Bouncing her infant son on one hip while standing in Godlewski’s kitchen, Roys says winning the most expensive governor’s race in the country won’t matter if the Republican-led Legislature can simply override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes. The immediate goal of the new PAC, she says, is “to make sure however many millions we spend to re-elect Gov. Evers isn’t for nothing.”
The next goal will be to elect a progressive justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April, potentially changing the direction of the Court in a series of important cases, including a challenge to Wisconsin’s gerrymandered voting maps and a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
“If we win in November and April, we could have a much different state in two years — much more reflective of our progressive history and blue character,” Roys says.
Standing on the staircase in her home, an energetic Godlewski in an “Elect Women” T-shirt thanks the candidates for coming from their far-flung districts, where they are running for “critical seats that we’ve got to win in 2022, to make sure that the state does not become a Republican supermajority.”
She holds up six fingers, reminding everyone how close Republicans are to achieving that goal this year. “You always hear that this is the most important election of our lifetime. But I will tell you, I truly believe that this one is,” she says. While the eyes of the nation are on the tight races for U.S. Senate and the governorship of this swing state, “the other piece, the third leg of that stool that we cannot forget about, is the Legislature.”
Women Save the Veto is providing financial and strategic support to incumbent Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) against Republican challenger Andrew Fox, a warehouse forklift driver and gas station cashier as well as to five-time incumbent Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) who is being challenged by former Marine Scott Soik, who is small business owner and gunsmith.
In Democratic-leaning Assembly District 84 in the Milwaukee suburbs, the group is supporting LuAnn Bird, a former school board member and past executive director of Wisconsin’s League of Women Voters against Republican former Milwaukee alderman Bob Donovan.
In Democratic-leaning Assembly District 54, the group is supporting Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri, who is running to replace outgoing Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz against Republican auto shop and tavern owner Donnie Herman.
In Republican-leaning Senate District 19, the group is supporting small business owner and city council member Kristin Alfheim of Appleton who is running against Republican state Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, who currently represents the 55th Assembly District. Alfheim describes the race as a rare opportunity to flip the district, because of its open seat.
In Senate District 25, home of retiring Senate minority leader Janet Bewley, Godlewski’s PAC is supporting Kelly Westland, a former city council member and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s liaison in northern Wisconsin for the last seven years, who is running against former Republican Assemblyman Romaine Robert Quinn.
Westland’s Senate district, the largest in the state, has been Democratic since 1986, “It’s that nice blue dot in the top corner of Wisconsin,” she says. But it got redder after redistricting. Under the current map, Bewley would have won the seat by a mere four votes — “so every vote counts,” Westland says. She has been talking to Republicans, Democrats and independents throughout the district, including some who voted for both former president Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. “There are Tammy Baldwin/Donald Trump voters. I’ve met them,” she says. “I can’t say I understand it, but I’ll take it.”
In general, Westland feels Democrats need to do more to reach out to rural voters. “There’s a long history of grievance in my area, the feeling that Madison doesn’t know we exist,” she says. She thinks rural Democratic party field offices should stay open year-round and that the party should make a bigger investment in local organizers, “who don’t just show up at election time.”
Talking about fighting for rural infrastructure, safe drinking water, broadband and access to affordable health care, she feels she has been making a connection with voters of all political persuasions who feel overlooked. She also talks to voters who have long identified as Republican, but who, after the Jan. 6 insurrection and the increasingly hard-right turn of Republican politics, don’t feel like they have a party anymore.
“Especially Republican women, who remember what life was like before Roe v. Wade,” she says, “that’s enough to shift them.”
All of the candidates Godlewski is supporting are running to protect abortion rights — the main focus of her PAC.
But another theme many of them emphasize is voters’ interest in getting beyond toxic partisanship and supporting elected officials of any party who want to make government work for them.
“I can’t tell you how energizing it is for me to talk to every single person at the doors,” says Bird. Republicans and Democrats alike “want what we want,” she adds. “They want voting rights, they want women’s rights. They don’t want the government controlling our health care.”
To illustrate her point, she tells a story about going door to door and being greeted by a voter wearing a MAGA cap: “I say, ‘I don’t suppose you’d vote for a Democrat, would you?’ And I’m laughing … he’s laughing, too. And we started talking and pretty soon, to make a long story short, he said, ‘You know, I can vote for you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s just great.’ ” She asked to take a photo with him, since, she said, no one would believe her. He agreed, and exclaimed, “You flipped me!”
Shankland, who is running for her sixth term in a district that was once represented in Congress by Dave Obey, the longtime chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Once reliably blue, along with much of central Wisconsin, the district has recently been trending red.
“I am a Democratic legislator and I’m the only one that has been serving this whole time since 2016, where everyone around me is Republican,” Shankland says. “And the Speaker [Robin Vos] has told the press that he is targeting my race like never before, because I’m the last one standing — and I’m on a crutch.”
Shankland broke her back nearly two years ago on Inauguration Day and is still walking with a crutch, which, she says, has prompted many voters to share stories with her about their health struggles.
“One thing that I have learned is that vulnerability is strength, sharing your personal story, showing that you are a human, showing that you are fighting for the dignity that everyone deserves in our state, that’s strength,” she says.
In 2012, Shankland outperformed President Barack Obama by 3% in Portage County. In 2020, she outperformed then-candidate Joe Biden by about 2%. She got more votes than she ever had, and won by the smallest margin.
“If I’m outperforming the top of the ticket in every election, yet I’m losing percentages, it means conservatives are turning out like never before,” she says.
But by being responsive to her constituents, she believes she can continue to win both Republican and Democratic votes. That’s crucial, she says, because Democrats cannot win statewide without central Wisconsin.
As she confronts a barrage of negative ads, she says, “I have just enough money right now today for one TV ad at very low frequencies.”
The Women Save the Veto PAC is unlikely to bring enough money into the race to compete in the TV ad war in Wisconsin’s most expensive media market. But through independent expenditures, the PAC plans to help with digital ads, Godlewski says, where many of the candidates she has picked are outgunned.
Spending by candidates and special interest groups broke all records during the 2020 legislative elections, reaching $53.9 million, according to Matt Rothschild of the campaign finance watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. In 14 races candidate and group spending exceeded $1 million, including 10 races in which the candidates alone spent more than $1 million, the Democracy Campaign found. Candidate and group spending in the 2020 elections was 50% higher than the previous record of $35.8 million spent in the 2018 elections and about 92% higher than the $28.1 million spent in the 2016 legislative elections.
Godlewski calls this explosion of campaign spending “insane.” But she is also frustrated that donors in New York and California are not focused on Wisconsin and the threat of a Republican supermajority in the Legislature. “We have to do something,” she says.
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