Unraveling Wisconsin GOP Candidate’s Abortion Position

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels — who opposes abortion rights —made headlines when he said in a radio interview last month that as governor, he would sign an abortion ban that included exceptions for rape and incest.

A Facebook ad from the Republican Accountability PAC says Michels “supports no exceptions for rape [or] incest.”

The ad isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

There’s no evidence Michels has changed his personal opinion opposing exceptions for rape or incest, but he did say he’d be willing to compromise if the state legislature brought him a bill that included those exceptions.

As abortion continues to be a focal point of the 2022 midterm elections following the Supreme Court’s June ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade — which established a constitutional right to abortion in 1973 — political ads have misled or made false claims about candidates’ statements on abortion. This ad isn’t either, but Michels’ position is more nuanced than the ad suggests.

The Facebook ad focuses on the race between Michels and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. It was shared on Oct. 10 and paid for by the Republican Accountability PAC, or RAPAC, a group of self-described “Republicans, former Republicans, and conservatives” that opposes former President Donald Trump and “candidates that are too extreme to govern.” 

In the ad, a person identified as a Wisconsin Republican says that Michels is too extreme for Wisconsin, adding that “Tim Michels supports no exceptions for rape [or] incest and that is unacceptable.” The ad has received more than 116,000 views. 

RAPAC also shared the claim on its website, saying. “Michels would use his power as governor to reinstate Wisconsin’s 1849 law that bans abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest.”

Michels has said he supports an 1849 Wisconsin abortion law, which made it a felony to perform an abortion at any stage unless it was to save the pregnant person’s life. 

In June, Michels said the law was an “exact mirror” of his position on abortion and that he wouldn’t support exceptions for rape or incest. Michels, a political novice who was endorsed by Trump, won the Republican primary on Aug. 9 against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was backed by former Vice President Mike Pence. 

Michels, who has donated money to anti-abortion groups, said on Sept. 6 that he was asked to “soften” his stance on abortion to allow for exceptions for rape and incest. At the time, he said, “I’m not gonna soften my stance on abortion.”

But a few weeks later, conservative host Dan O’Donnell asked Michels in a WISN radio interview on Sept. 23 if he would sign a bill that included exceptions for people who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

“I am pro-life. I make no apologies for that,” Michels said. “But I also understand that this is a representative democracy. And if the people — in this case, the legislature — brought a bill before me, as you just stated, I would sign that.”

In talking about his interview with Michels, O’Donnell said: “So I asked Michels, alright, so you had said before that you would not have rape or incest exceptions. Essentially, what sort of changed?”

Michels responded: “I understand that a governor, you know, you’re not the ultimate authority on things, that you work with the legislature. And the legislature — the state Senate, the Assembly — they’re closest to the people. So yes, if that bill was put before me, I would sign it.”

In reflecting on the interview, O’Donnell took the position that Michels did not “flip-flop” on the issue of exceptions for rape and incest. The conservative host said Michels as governor would accept “the will of the people,” even “if that is different than his own personal will.”

We reached out to Michels’ campaign for comment on the RAPAC ad and whether his abortion position had changed, but we didn’t hear back. However, a campaign spokesperson told PolitiFact that Michels’ personal opinion had not changed.

PolitiFact rated Michels’ remarks as a policy flip-flop, and the Associated Press wrote that the Republican had “changed course on a significant issue.”

David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told us by email that it’s not uncommon for a candidate to shift positions after winning a primary or so close to a general election.

“Michels clearly has switched his position on abortion, saying that he would sign a bill with exceptions for rape and incest (after previously saying he did not support exceptions),” Canon said. “We are seeing this all over the country with candidates moving more to the center for the general election.”

So, the RAPAC ad isn’t wrong to say that Michels “supports no exceptions for rape or incest.” That is his personal opinion by his campaign’s own acknowledgement. But there’s more to the issue that voters may want to know.

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