MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul will have to go through an experienced Republican prosecutor to win a second term this fall in a race that will likely turn on the candidates' stances on broader issues such as abortion, gun restrictions and crime.
Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney outlasted two sharply conservative opponents in Tuesday's primary to win the right to face Kaul in the Nov. 8 general election.
With both Republicans and Democrats using attorneys general offices across the country to attack opposing presidential administrations' policies in court, the stakes are big. Toney and Kaul are both experienced prosecutors, which means their race could hinge on larger political issues, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Anthony Chergosky said.
For Kaul, that will likely mean hyping the lawsuit he filed seeking to undo an 1849 state law banning abortion.
Kaul also could advertise his efforts to advance gun control legislation and hammer Republicans for blocking any attempts to restrict firearm access. Kaul supports universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would allow judges to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves and others — efforts that Toney opposes.
Toney will have to fight a perception that he's too moderate after taking criticism during the primary for charging several people for violating Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' COVID-19 stay-at-home order in 2020. He's worked to show he's a tough conservative by trumpeting his decision to charge five people for voting using UPS box addresses, saying he's fighting voter fraud.
Toney could shift further to the right if he decides he needs to curry favor with Donald Trump, Chergosky said.
Crime, particularly in Milwaukee, is sure to be a campaign issue. According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel database, the city has seen 145 homicides so far this year, on pace to exceed the the record of nearly 200 set in 2021.
Toney was already attacking on that front Wednesday, accusing Kaul of being soft on crime, citing testing delays at the state crime labs and Kaul's refusal to pursue a Republican proposal that would allow the attorney general to prosecute crimes independent of Milwaukee County prosecutors.
Kaul's campaign issued a statement saying Toney is running for the “far-right fringe.”
Kaul warned that Toney would drop the lawsuit challenging the abortion ban and criticized him for opposing “common-sense gun-safety measures” and for “fanning the flames of the Big Lie,” a reference to Trump's false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist who has donated to Kaul's campaign but isn't affiliated with it, said Toney will have a difficult time pleasing Trump supporters without alienating more moderate Republicans.
"That’s the challenge for a lot of Republicans," Chheda said. “Are hard-core voters going to trust him?”
Retired Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said it will be difficult for Toney and Kaul to get attention given that the governor's race and a U.S. Senate race are on the November ballot as well. The nation's political divides have become so deep and independent voters so rare, though, that the candidates' messages may not matter, he said.
“There's so little left in the middle right now,” Scholz said. "I just don’t see any issues out there that are going to move people off their partisan perch. It’s who you identify as and who you turn out and that will determine the winner.”
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Kaul also supports universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would allow judges to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves and others, efforts that Toney opposes.
Kaul campaign manager Sondra Milkie said Toney would represent “the far-right fringe.”