Dozens of protesters gather in the Wisconsin state Capitol rotunda in Madison on June 22, 2022, in hopes of convincing Republican lawmakers to repeal the state's 173-year-old ban on abortions.
CNN  — 

Democrats in Wisconsin sought to turn the midterm elections into a referendum on abortion after Republicans who control the state legislature met for less than 30 seconds Tuesday to reject Gov. Tony Evers’ bid to allow voters to decide the issue.

In a state where two of the nation’s most competitive races are playing out as Evers, the Democratic governor, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson seek reelection, an 1849 law banning abortion in nearly all circumstances took effect following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion rights protections this summer.

The GOP-led legislature has defended the 1849 law and has not added exceptions for rape and incest. And Wisconsin’s law does not allow for referendums like the one on Michigan’s ballot in November that could allow voters there to overturn a decades-old abortion ban.

Evers – who faces Republican businessman Tim Michels, who, in a reversal that highlighted the political potency of the issue, said last week he now supports exceptions to the abortion ban for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest – called lawmakers into a special session on Tuesday morning, urging them to change the law to allow voters to decide whether to scrap the 1849 abortion ban.

But the state Assembly and Senate both adjourned their sessions within 30 seconds, taking no action on Evers’ proposals.

At a pro-abortion rights rally outside the Capitol in Madison after the legislature adjourned Tuesday, Evers said this year’s election “will decide what kind of state we’re going to be forever.”

He also said Wisconsin would be “the laughing stock of the country” and “the worst state in the union” if the state elects Republicans who are unwilling to change the 1849 abortion law in November.

“When it comes to reproductive freedom, the will of the people is obviously not the law of the land – but it damn well should be,” Evers said at the “Your Choice, Your Vote” rally.

“Wisconsinites, women in particular, are not only stripped of their reproductive freedom but they currently don’t have the right to try and change it without having to get permission from a bunch of politicians. Can you think of anything more ridiculous? It’s just flat out wrong,” he said.

It was part of a major push Democrats are making to attempt to place the debate over abortion rights at the center of Wisconsin’s election this year. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democrat who is challenging Johnson, this week launched a “Ron Against Roe” tour – in reference to the landmark 1973 abortion ruling overturned by a Supreme Court decision in late June – featuring a slate of events in which he is hammering Johnson over his opposition to abortion rights.

Evers’ campaign, meanwhile, launched a new television advertisement Tuesday taking aim at Michels’ prior position.

“A 12-year-old girl can’t legally drive a car. At 12, she can’t even vote. But if this little girl were tragically raped or a victim of incest and became pregnant, radical Tim Michels would force her to deliver the baby,” a narrator says in Evers’ ad.

Michels did not directly respond to Evers on Tuesday. He was campaigning in Dells, and attacking Evers on social media over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the special session or Evers’ comments at the rally.

The Democratic push comes as Republicans seek to turn the election into a referendum on Democrats’ handling of crime in Wisconsin, as well as inflation under President Joe Biden. In recent weeks, the GOP’s ads in the state have increasingly focused on crime, particularly in Milwaukee.

Johnson, at a Rotary Club of Milwaukee event on Tuesday, repeated a position he has taken in recent weeks on abortion that largely aligns with what Evers had proposed, saying he believes the issue should be decided by voters through a referendum.

“We haven’t put the question to the people. That’s what we need to do,” Johnson said in a remark that gained attention after it was tweeted by an Associated Press reporter.

Evers pounced on that tweet, saying on Twitter: “I agree—it’s been 100 days since #Roe was overturned, and I’ve called the Legislature into special session at 10:00 today to vote on a pathway to repeal our criminal abortion ban.”

“Republicans should stop paying lip service to reproductive freedom and do something about it,” Evers said.

State Rep. Sara Rodriguez, Evers’ nominee for lieutenant governor, also highlighted Johnson’s position on Tuesday at the rally outside the Capitol.

“There is bipartisan support for the referendum process. I agree with very little that Sen. Ron Johnson has said, but this I agree on,” she said. “Let’s do this.”

Johnson has said he would like to see the state’s abortion law changed to allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in September that Wisconsin voters should have an opportunity to weigh in and he would “rather do it through a direct referendum.”

However, Republican leaders in Madison never seriously considered Evers’ calls for a special session to create a legal pathway for a referendum – even though those calls came after Johnson had proposed such a referendum.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a September statement: “Governor Evers would rather push his agenda to have abortion available until birth than talk about his failure to address rising crime and runaway inflation caused by his liberal DC allies. Hopefully, voters see through his desperate political stunt.”

Johnson’s campaign did not respond to questions about his views on the legislature’s decision to adjourn Tuesday without considering Evers’ call to create a pathway for a referendum on abortion.