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In call for special session, Evers highlights Johnson's past words, actions on abortion law

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New fight over abortion jolts Democratic battle to take on Johnson in Wisconsin

President Joe Biden has become an apparent liability for Democrats running in Wisconsin -- so much so that two of the leading candidates running for a US Senate nomination won't say whether he should run again.

MADISON (WKOW) -- In calling for lawmakers to take up his proposed amendment to the Wisconsin constitution Wednesday, Gov. Tony Evers pointed to recent remarks Republican Sen. Ron Johnson made on abortion law.

The amendment would allow voters to directly consider referendum questions on rejecting parts of current state laws, proposing new state laws, and amending the state constitution without lawmakers' actions.

Currently, 26 states allow voters to take direct action on adopting to rejecting laws. 

Evers, along with legislative Democrats, said the change is necessary in order to let voters truly decide whether Wisconsin's 1849 abortion ban remains state law. The ban only allows exceptions for when a mother's life is at risk and does not provide exceptions for rape and incest.

Evers pointed to a response Johnson gave the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month when the senator was asked for his stance on Wisconsin's abortion ban.

Johnson told a reporter he supported exceptions for rape and incest, and believed changed to the state law should be enacted, "through a direct referendum.”

When asked Wednesday if he supported Evers' call for a constitutional amendment allowing such a referendum, Johnson called it a political stunt.

"Once again, Democrats are seeking to divide the public by exploiting the profound moral issue of abortion by politicizing it before an election that should be focused on the disastrous results of their policies and governance," the statement read.

Democrats maintained Johnson's refusal to support the effort to provide a direct referendum on abortion in Wisconsin was consistent with his inconsistent message on abortion law following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended federal abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.

In numerous public comments, Johnson has said he believes abortion law should be left to the states, while also keeping the door open to future federal laws.

That was recently illustrated in audio obtained by 27 News of a response Johnson gave to a supporter's question at a September 16 Winnebago County GOP event.

"I'm not in favor of what [Senator] Lindsey Graham just, all of a sudden, provided," Johnson said. "Ok, let's, 15 [weeks]- it's not the time. Maybe, maybe at some point in time, maybe."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed a 15-week federal abortion ban earlier this month, providing exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother's health.

Johnson has, on seven past occasions, co-sponsored Graham bills that would've banned abortion nationwide after 20 weeks, providing the same exceptions.

In the recorded audio, Johnson suggests once states have established their own post-Roe abortion policies, Congress could then potentially enact federal restrictions.

"In the future, once this process is played out in all the states, maybe, Congress needs to come in there and go, 'OK, you've got a couple outliers here. You better protect life a little bit sooner than that.'" Johnson said.

When asked to clarify what exactly Johnson meant by outliers, and what types of laws might not be considered protecting the unborn soon enough, a statement provided by Johnson's office did not answer that question.

Instead, Johnson's statement said the Dobbs Supreme Court decision only now opened the door for a "democratic process to unfold in each state."

"Because of the profound nature of this decision," Johnson's statement said. "We should not rush the debate, but instead allow enough time for a thorough and thoughtful discussion."

Johnson's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, accused Johnson of backtracking from his previous position.

“Ron Johnson can try to lie and distract from his extreme positions all he wants," Barnes said, according to a statement his campaign provided. "But he can't run from his record of supporting an abortion law with no exceptions for rape or incest.” 

When asked to back the claim Johnson supported an abortion law without rape and incest exceptions, Barnes campaign spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel pointed to a 2011 bill Johnson co-sponsored that provided equal protection under the 14th Amendment to both the born and unborn. That bill did not list any exceptions for the unborn. 

Johnson's spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, maintained it'd be inaccurate to say Johnson has backed previous federal abortion ban bills.

"He hasn’t supported federal bans," Henning said. "He’s supported reasonable restrictions with exceptions and that was before the Dobbs decision that returned the issue to the states."

As for whether Barnes would support any restrictions on abortion, the Democratic candidate said no.

“I don’t think it should be up to politicians like me to make that decision," Barnes said in a statement. "It should be up to women and their doctors to decide what’s right for them.”

According to a Marquette Law School poll released earlier this month, 63 percent of Wisconsin voters said they're opposed to the Dobbs ruling. 83 percent said they believe women should be allowed to get an abortion if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Capitol Bureau Chief