MADISON — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and Democratic challenger Josh Kaul spent the summer quietly sniping at each other as Wisconsin’s crowded gubernatorial primary dominated headlines.
That’s over now. Schimel and Kaul are poised to clash for real as they sprint toward the Nov. 6 general election. A Kaul victory would add to the ranks of Democratic attorney generals across the country and strengthen the legal pushback against President Donald Trump’s policies. The question is whether anyone will notice as all eyes focus on higher-profile fights for governor and U.S. Senate.
“(For voters), there’s a lot of pressure on the brain, a lot of competition for voters’ attention,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic political strategist. “It remains to be seen how much attention the attorney general’s race really can get. That’s unusual in Wisconsin.”
The Schimel-Kaul contest looks like a match of legal heavyweights at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, Schimel worked as an assistant prosecutor and district attorney in Waukesha County for nearly 30 years.
He ran for attorney general in 2014 after Republican J.B. Van Hollen decided not to seek re-election. He overcame damaging headlines about his 1990 drunken driving arrest to defeat Jefferson County district attorney and rising Democratic star Susan Happ.
He’s since proven himself a staunch conservative, joining multi-state lawsuits challenging former President Barack Obama’s federal health care reforms and environmental regulations. He also successfully defended Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn legislative boundaries all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last year he attended a Republican Attorneys General Association event at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and journeyed to California to discuss state rights at an Alliance Defending Freedom conference. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies ADF as an extremist organization working to criminalize homosexuality, a characterization the ADF rejects.
Kaul, meanwhile, is the son of former Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. He graduated from Stanford Law School and has worked as an assistant federal prosecutor in Baltimore.
He served as one of Hillary Clinton’s attorneys in Wisconsin’s 2016 presidential recount and is representing liberal group One Wisconsin Institute in a lawsuit challenging the state’s voter ID law. Former Vice President Joe Biden has endorsed him.
With Democrats in the minority in both houses of Congress, the party has increasingly relied on attorney generals in blue states to block Trump polices ranging from his ban on travel from mostly Muslim countries to separating children and parents in the United States without permission.
Democrats see Schimel as vulnerable after they won a pair of special legislative elections earlier this year and voters’ anger toward Trump grows; a Kaul victory would add another player to their coalition. Kaul has already sounded familiar Democratic themes, saying he wants to protect the environment, withdraw from the lawsuit challenging health care reforms, impose universal background checks on gun purchases and ban 3D-printed guns.
So far, though, Kaul has campaigned in the background, mostly letting others attack Schimel. Liberal groups have hit the attorney general for attending the ADF conference, spending tens of thousands of tax dollars on promotional items — including coins emblazoned with Schimel’s “kicking ass every day” mantra — and moving too slowly to analyze thousands of sexual assault kits sitting on police shelves.
Schimel has been playing defense for months. Schimel called ADF a Christian organization, defended his promotional items as morale-boosters and explaining it has taken time to inventory the sexual assault kits and find private labs willing to test them.
Both sides will have the money to go on the offensive before November. Schimel had a little more than a million dollars on hand at the end of July; Kaul had nearly $750,000.
Chheda said Schimel has plenty of soft spots Kaul can pound away at, most prominently the promotional coins, the sexual assault kits and the mounting opioid crisis. Kaul followed those talking points almost to the letter during a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
“We need more effective leadership,” Kaul said.
Schimel campaign manager Johnny Koremenos declined to discuss campaign tactics. He did point to an unusually long, detailed letter Schimel posted online recounting his life story.
Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said Schimel can fight back by branding Kaul as Clinton’s attorney, a label sure to energize the GOP base, and questioning his commitment to Wisconsin after his East Coast stint.
Kaul needs to do a better job defining himself by articulating a clear agenda for the Justice Department, Scholz said.
“If (Kaul) spends the whole campaign poking Schimel, scratching off scabs and making it bleed more, you can, but you’ve got to have a better campaign than that,” Scholz said.
Whether anyone will be watching is another matter. Attorney general races are always laced with legal nuances that can make voters’ eyes glaze over. More importantly the governor’s race between Democrat Tony Evers and two-term Republican incumbent Scott Walker plus the U.S. Senate race between Republican Leah Vukmir and incumbent Democrat Tammy Baldwin threaten to smother everything else political this cycle.
That hurts Kaul, Scholz said.
“Kaul is down the ticket and nobody knows him,” Scholz said. “People know (Schimel is) the attorney general. Kaul is going to have to rely on Evers and Baldwin to move turnout for him.”
Kaul said voters can expect a vigorous debate on the issues and “we’ll see that results in in terms of coverage.”