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Ron Johnson calls on GOP to set aside ‘squabbles’ on abortion in order to win elections

Johnson says most Americans, Wisconsinites, 'even most Republicans' don't support total abortion bans

Sen. Ron Johnson speaks at a rally for former President Donald Trump Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at Hyatt Regency in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson urged members of the Republican Party of Wisconsin to set aside intra-party “squabbles” on abortion limits, telling party activists, “We have to win elections.”

The warning from Wisconsin’s top Republican follows multiple statewide elections where Democrats have used the abortion issue to help them turn out votes following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling overturning federal abortion protections.

Johnson’s comments came during the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s annual state convention in Appleton Saturday. He received strong applause for comments about Democratic President Joe Biden being “incredibly unfit for office” before saying he’s not convinced the president will be Democrats’ nominee for the 2024 presidential race.

Johnson said the greatest threat he sees facing America is “our horrible division,” which he blamed on Democrats pushing issues like critical race theory, transgender athletes competing on women’s sports teams and gender-affirming health care. 

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Johnson noted there’s division within the Republican Party as well when it comes to abortion. He said Democrats are working to make the 2024 election a referendum on abortion. He said he respects that many Republicans want to protect unborn children at conception, which equates to a total ban on abortion procedures.

“But that’s not where, probably, most Americans, most Wisconsinites … even most Republicans land,” Johnson said. 

The Republican senator again touted his idea, first floated during his 2022 reelection campaign, of holding a statewide referendum asking voters at what point society has “the responsibility to protect life in the womb.”

Johnson noted Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin passed legislation banning abortions after 20-weeks of pregnancy in 2015, and Florida passed a 15-week abortion ban. He said a “broad range” of European countries have a 12-week abortion ban, calling it “the reasonable position that most Americans agree with.”

“I know people don’t like what I’m saying,” Johnson said. “Many people in this room do not like what I am saying. I’m just laying out the reality of the situation. Because in the end, we have to win elections. If those of us who want to protect life — if we don’t win, the end result will be unrestricted abortions, infanticide up to the moment of birth, that will be the results so we have to win.”

A crowd of protesters hold signs on the capitol steps.
Protesters stand together as they listen to speakers discuss abortion access Friday, June 24, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

State GOP officially endorses Eric Hovde for US Senate

The state GOP also voted to formally endorse Eric Hovde as the party’s nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.

Hovde thanked his fellow Republicans and promised to “work my tail off” to defeat Baldwin.

“I’m not going to give 1 inch of Wisconsin up to Sen. Baldwin,” Hovde said. “I’m going to compete in the Black communities, the Hispanic communities, on our universities and our farm communities all over.”

During his speech, Hovde accused Baldwin, her Democratic colleagues and Biden of pushing to defund the police and open the southern border, and blamed them for driving up inflation by way of government spending. He also accused members of the media of bias.

“Hold me accountable, ask me hard questions, but do the same to Sen. Baldwin, please!” said Hovde.

There was a motion to allow Hovde’s Republican primary opponent, Rejani Raveendran, to speak, but it was deemed out of order. That drew chants of “let her speak” from some members of the convention audience.

Other top Republicans have declined to get into the race, and former President Donald Trump endorsed Hovde earlier this year.

Republican Eric Hovde announces his campaign for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

GOP lawmakers talk maps, amendments as Vos absent

The GOP convention held a state legislative leadership panel with Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance Committee. There was a notable absence on the panel as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not attend. 

Vos, a regular at state party conventions for years, did not attend Saturday. The state GOP told WisPolitics it was due to a scheduling conflict.

Vos has faced growing criticism from a faction of his own party for not doing more to support Trump, and for not trying to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss to President Joe Biden. Two years ago, Vos was booed at the annual state convention after saying that decertifying the election was impossible.

Vos is currently facing a second consecutive recall attempt driven by small group of staunch Trump supporters, who claim the speaker is blocking the impeachment of Wisconsin’s top elections official. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos gestures as he speaks.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks at the front of the chamber Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

LeMahieu and Born attacked the Universities of Wisconsin for not being more aggressive in responding to pro-Palestinian protesters who camped at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee earlier this month. They also claimed campuses are more focused on diversity, equity and inclusion policies than they are on training “the workforce of the future.” 

LeMahieu touted Senate Republicans’ recent override of several of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes of GOP legislation, including one bill that would spell out how to spend $125 million to combat PFAS contamination of drinking water and another that would require a person’s citizenship status to be on their voter ID. 

Republicans hold a super-majority in the Senate, but not in the Assembly, and Vos did not schedule a veto override attempt in that house before the Legislature’s veto review session ended this week.

“Unfortunately, the Assembly is a couple of votes shy currently, of overriding vetoes,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll see what happens before our next session.”

Senator Devin LeMahieu speaks to reporters after an address by Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Born and LeMahieu were asked why sending constitutional amendments to voters in statewide referendums has been successful for Republicans when the party has struggled to win statewide elections. In April, voters amended the Wisconsin Constitution to ban the use of private donations and consultants to support election administration in the state.

Born called the idea of putting conservative reforms before voters “the secret weapon” for the GOP.

“And if the governor refuses to use any common sense on these basic issues,” Born said, “then we’ll go to our secret weapon — the people of Wisconsin — and get it done.”

LeMahieu accused the new liberal majority in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court of “making up the constitution as it goes” and said constitutional amendments are the answer.

One of the court’s biggest rulings in the past year was a December decision declaring Republican-drawn state legislative voting maps unconstitutional. As the liberal majority was heading toward enacting new maps submitted by parties in the redistricting lawsuit, Republican lawmakers passed maps that were submitted to the court by Evers.

The new maps have changed the game for legislative politics, giving Democrats better chances of gaining seats Senate and Assembly, and raised the possibility of gaining control of the Assembly for the first time since 2010. 

LeMahieu said under the new Senate maps, “we have seven seats that are 50-50 or lean a little Dem that we currently control.” He said only four of those seats are up for election in 2024, so Republicans won’t lose the majority this year. But he urged GOP activists to support strong candidates to protect the party’s majority. 

“If we lose all of our seats this year, heaven forbid we do, then in two years when the other half of the Senate’s up, our other three seats are up,” LeMahieu said. “It’s bad enough working with our liberal Supreme Court and our liberal governor. I don’t want to be in the minority.”

The governor holds up a folder showing the signed bill to the crowd.
Gov. Tony Evers holds up the bill after signing it Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

GOP congressional delegation hammers Democrats on border

Immigration dominated a panel featuring Wisconsin’s five Republican members of the U.S. House. U.S. Reps. Derrick Van Orden, Glen Grothman, Tom Tiffany, Bryan Steil and Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly accused Biden of allowing illegal immigration to surge by reversing border policies enacted by Trump.

“The largest human trafficking operation perhaps in the history of the world is going on right now and your United States government is complicit in it,” Tiffany said. “That’s how awful this is.”

Van Orden, a Prairie du Chien Republican whose 3rd Congressional District is a top target of Democrats, yelled at the crowd to “get out and work” to mobilize voters to send Trump back to the White House, maintain the GOP majority in the U.S. House and help Republicans flip the U.S. Senate. 

“If you don’t turn out your neighbors, if you don’t make phone calls, write postcards, donate money, you’re going to drive this country into socialism,” Van Orden warned. “It’s cut and dried.” 

Another notable absence during the state convention was former Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Green Bay, who resigned from office April 20 following attacks from with in the GOP regarding his decision not to support the impeachment of U.S. Homeland Security Secraty Alejandro Mayorkas. Gallagher was once seen as a rising start in Republican politics, but his name wasn’t mentioned during the congressional panel. 

The state Democratic Party said that for the past decade, Wisconsin Republicans “tried to hide their extreme agenda” behind gerrymandered legislative maps. Democrats said thanks to new maps, they’d be held accountable.

“Here’s the headline this weekend: the Republican Party of Wisconsin is bankrupt in every sense of the word,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler. “They’re broke, they’re beholden to Donald Trump and his bankrupt ideas, and they’re politically bankrupt, representing an extreme agenda that has no resonance with the people of Wisconsin.”

Democrats will hold their annual state convention next month before both parties hold their national conventions this summer.

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