MADISON — Incumbent Secretary of State Doug La Follette survived the first major primary battle of his career, defeating Dane County Democratic Party Chair Alexia Sabor.
La Follette’s victory in the Democratic primary sets up a general election contest with state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, who easily emerged from the Republicans’ three-person primary Tuesday.
The Nov. 8 contest is likely to turn on who should administer future elections, with La Follette backing the state’s approach of keeping elections in the hands of nonelected officials while Loudenbeck has signaled that those duties should be handled by the elected secretary of state, as is done in some other states.
La Follette overcame a progressive, reform-minded challenge from Sabor.
The La Follette campaign experienced a rocky start after Wisconsin’s longest-serving secretary of state nearly failed to procure enough signatures required to appear on the ballot — which he attributed to taking precautionary measures against a COVID-19 infection. La Follette was hammered by Sabor for vacationing in Africa during the height of the primary campaign season.
Sabor conceded defeat and endorsed La Follette’s campaign, calling for partisan unity in state and federal elections this fall.
“Obviously I didn’t differ from Doug La Follette in terms of our values, I differed in terms of what I thought was the best approach to the general election,” Sabor said. “So obviously, keeping all of the constitutional seats out of Republican hands and getting US Senator elected to replace Ron Johnson, that has always been ultimately my goal, and I have always been prepared to back whoever are at the Democrats in these races.”
La Follette attributed his decisive victory to a history of statewide name recognition and lengthy electoral history throughout the state over the past four decades.
La Follette also congratulated Sabor on the strength of her campaign.
“I’ve been elected a number of times and over the past 40 years or so,” La Follette said. “I’ve traveled across the state from Kenosha to Superior … and met people, and my opponent who was a very serving person with a great resume wasn’t known to anybody outside of Dane County. I want to congratulate her. I think she did quite well.”
La Follette will enter the general election vastly outgunned from a financial standpoint. As of July, Loudenbeck hauled in a sum of nearly $100,000 in donations compared with La Follette’s roughly $12,000 — predominantly from out-of-state donors.
Loudenbeck coasted to the Republican nomination, defeating real estate investor Jay Schroeder and podcast host Justin Schmidtka. She was the early favorite to win the race, netting support for her campaign from a majority of her Republican colleagues in the Legislature.
The race to control the secretary of state’s office is expected to be the political fight of La Follette’s career with Republicans uniting behind Loudenbeck and keeping the traditionally sleepy down-ballot race in the crosshairs as a means to overhaul elections statewide.
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Democrats have lambasted the latest election rules change proposed by their GOP counterparts, with La Follette implying Loudenbeck may only certify a Republican victor in the 2024 presidential election, even if a Democratic candidate receives a majority of votes.
“Now there’s one issue and only one, and that’s protecting the integrity of Wisconsin votes in the election, because we know that the Republicans from Arizona to Michigan to Georgia, they want to put people in the office of Secretary of State who can positively tamper with the election results and in Wisconsin we have the same situation.” La Follette said.
“They want to move the election to the Secretary of State, and they want to be able to have some influence over the results,” he added.
Wisconsin is one of just 14 states whose secretary of state does not possess any election administration duties, and Republicans have offered a litany of reasons for abolishing the WEC, including removing what they describe as excess bureaucracy, fortifying a state-level check on local election clerks and pacifying former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread electoral fraud in the state.
Loudenbeck said consolidating election oversight powers in the hands of the secretary of state, though not a practice in Wisconsin since 1973, will allow the office to more uniformly enforce election laws, which she contends did not occur in 2020, citing a Legislative Audit Bureau review of the elections
“There were multiple instances in that audit of guidance documents in conflict with state law, clerks, discretion to correct ballots based on guidance that was in conflict with state law.” Loudenbeck said. “Those are some really specific examples. Whoever creates guidance documents, whether it’s the DNR or the Wisconsin Elections Commission, needs to go through the administrative rules process, and that wasn’t done.”
In the upcoming campaign, Loudenbeck said she hopes to point out to voters what she described as inaction on the part of La Follette in wielding the secretary of state’s office to its full potential, calling La Follette’s tenure a “nearly 50-year legacy with not a lot of results.”
“Wisconsin voters have taken the first step forward in the effort to restore purpose and respect to the Office of Secretary of State,” Loudenbeck said “I am grateful to everyone who chose me as the best candidate to take on a 44 year incumbent who has neglected the office for far too long.”
La Follette said he plans to highlight his self-described use of the “bully pulpit” and lean on name recognition as a means to win in the fall.
The general election will be held on Nov. 8.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism