Long-time Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette tells Isthmus it’s “50-50” he will be able to collect the 2,000 signatures needed to make it on the ballot this year. 

“I’ll be real honest, it’s going to be close this year. I might not make it,” says La Follette. “COVID infections are still high, including in Dane County. I want to be safe, I want others to be safe. I can’t help but feel a little betrayed that the Democratic Party [of Wisconsin] won’t help me get on the ballot.” 

La Follette, who is 81, says he nearly retired this year. But he decided to run for re-election after the Democratic Party of Wisconsin “pressured” him to do so, telling La Follette he was the best candidate to win in November.

“Because I was encouraged to run by the party, I decided to hold off on retiring,” says La Follette, who announced he was running for re-election on March 17. Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesperson Iris Riis initially did not respond to Isthmus when asked if the party had asked La Follette to run. But after this article was published Riis emailed that the party neither “encouraged nor discouraged” La Follette to run for re-election. 

In his last election, La Follette collected 1,500 signatures himself and volunteers collected the rest. Concerned about the pandemic, he didn’t think it was realistic to do that again this year. But he had an idea on how to collect nomination signatures safely this election cycle. 

“I didn’t want to risk my health or the health of others. So I came up with a plan. There are 72 counties in Wisconsin, each with its own [Democratic] county party. I asked [the state party] could each of those county parties collect just 30 signatures for me? That way, no one would have to go to events or farmers’ markets to collect signatures and we could all stay safe,” says La Follette. “But just as the campaign period was starting, another candidate decided to run. So I was told the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has a bylaw that when there’s more than two candidates, they couldn’t get involved.” 

A week after candidates could start collecting nomination signatures, Alexia Sabor, chair of the Democratic Party of Dane County, declared she was challenging La Follette in the Aug. 9 primary. 

“I have had many primary opponents and I don’t mind. [Sabor] has every right to run. That’s why I asked the state party to help both of us collect nomination signatures,” says La Follette. “My plan still could have worked. But I was basically told they wouldn’t help me contact the county parties or get involved.” 

La Follette says the state party stopped talking to him after that. 

Shortly after this article was posted, Sachin Chheda — a senior advisor for Sabor — provided a comment via Twitter. 

“Doug La Follette has spent 44 years earning bipartisan agreement that he should have essentially no responsibilities. It’s way past time for a change,” tweeted Chheda. “Alexia Sabor is the candidate who will champion democracy, ensure our public dollars are spent wisely, and fight to keep Wisconsin’s election machinery safe, secure, and nonpartisan. Also, she will be on the ballot.”

Riis says that “barring extraordinary circumstances, DPW is neutral in primaries, and there is another Democratic candidate for Secretary of State.” 

That’s not true of all races with incumbents. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin is helping Gov. Tony Evers collect nomination signatures. But according to the Wisconsin Campaign Finance Information System website, there are three candidates registered as Democrats running for governor and Evers might face some token opposition in the August primary. It makes sense the state party is backing its one-term incumbent at the top of the ticket. So why not La Follette? 

“DPW has endorsed Evers, which is why we are helping collect nomination signatures. His endorsement fell under the extraordinary circumstances I mentioned earlier. Evers does not have any serious primary challengers,” explains Riis. “The process for endorsement is a party subunit must recommend the endorsement to the administrative committee, which then votes whether or not to endorse a candidate. No subunit recommended La Follette for endorsement, so the administrative committee never voted whether or not to endorse him.”

If there’s one thing La Follette has proven time and time again, it’s that he can win — even in years when Republicans are successful in elections up and down the ballot. Since 1974, Wisconsin voters have elected the Democrat to serve as secretary of state 11 times. He won on the same ballot as Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson four times, including when Thompson won in a landslide in 1994. La Follette was the only Democrat to win statewide office during the Republican wave when Gov. Scott Walker was elected in 2010; and La Follette won again in 2014. 

Jay Schroeder, one of the Republicans running for secretary of state this year, has lost two elections to La Follette. Even Schroeder thinks La Follette is getting burned by his party. 

“I think Doug has been successful because of name recognition. But what does it say about him that his own party isn’t helping him out?” asks Schroeder. “To me it says this is the year a Republican wins the office.” 

The stakes for Democrats losing the secretary of state race have never been higher. Legislative Republicans and all four top GOP candidates for governor want to abolish the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is overseen by a board of both Democrats and Republicans. The GOP candidates for secretary of state are proposing that the office assume control of administering elections — that was once the case in Wisconsin and many states still operate that way. 

When Wisconsin was founded in 1848, the secretary of state was second only to the governor in terms of power. The secretary once served as the state auditor, acted as the state comptroller, and regulated state businesses. But over 170 years, the office has lost nearly all of its duties. When La Follette was first elected in 1974, he says he managed 49 employees. Now it’s one and the office’s main duties include recording the official acts of the Legislature and governor and authenticating them with the state’s Great Seal, as well serving on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. 

La Follette says he understands why the Wisconsin secretary of state race isn’t a big priority for state Dems most years. And he admits his races are usually a bit sleepy. 

“But this year is different. The state party said they need to keep a Democrat in the office to protect them from voter finagling,” says La Follette. “I agree, that’s why I agreed to run when I was very seriously considering retirement.” 

Why does La Follette think he’s been so successful at the ballot box over four decades in Wisconsin politics?

“Part of it is my reputation for being an independent-minded Democrat. Voters like that and that’s how I have won support from independents and some Republicans. Part of it is back 40 years ago, I went around the state and shook as many hands as I could, campaigning like Bill Proxmire used to,” says La Follette. “Some of my success has also been because Republicans haven’t tried very hard to beat me. But I think that might change this year and I need all the help I can get.” 

Without the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s help, La Follette is seeing some success urging people to collect signatures via Facebook. With just days to go before the June 1 deadline, he has about 500 more to collect and would like a healthy buffer to ensure he has a minimum of 2,000.

“Like I said, it’s going to be close,” says La Follette.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include additional comments from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and Sachin Chheda, a senior advisor for Secretary of State candidate Alexia Sabor.

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