WAUKESHA, Wis. — On a debate stage in Milwaukee last month, two candidates enthusiastically vowed to implement paid family leave programs if they are elected.
But the promises — a signature part of many Democratic campaigns — were made by the two leading Republican candidates in Wisconsin’s competitive primary for governor.
It’s a sudden turn that has occurred in Republican circles across the country as the party seeks to find its footing in a political landscape turned on its head by the Supreme Court decision this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade. In states with total or near-total bans, a number of GOP lawmakers and candidates have shifted as more women face being forced to carry pregnancies to term — if not their stances on abortion rights, then their positions on policies like paid family leave, which is more typically promoted by Democratic politicians.
In Wisconsin, the top two candidates to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and businessman Tim Michels — vehemently oppose abortion rights. Both have vowed to enforce the state's strict 173-year-old law that went into effect after Roe was overturned if they are elected. Recently, they have sought to paint themselves in a more compassionate, pro-family light, strategists and politics watchers in the state said. That includes taking new positions in support of a state law that would promote paid family leave.
The move may allow Kleefisch and Michels, who appear neck and neck in Tuesday's primary, to woo Republican-leaning suburban voters — particularly women — who may have been turned off by their support for the near-total ban.
“I think it’s part of this adjustment within the party to the post-Roe world, where they are trying to make the point that if we are going to ban abortion, we need to come up with something that looks like a pro-child, pro-family policy,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin and editor-in-chief of The Bulwark. “It would appear to be part of this conversation about how they make themselves more palatable to suburban voters they have been alienating.
“But it is pretty striking,” he added. “On every other issue, there has been, between them, a race to the right for who can be the most purist and most absolutist conservative.”
Paid family leave is a program in which companies, sometimes with assistance from the state, pay workers who need to take time off from work to care for newborn or adopted children. In some cases, the policy can apply to time needed to care for ailing or dying family members.
Democrats — not Republicans — have traditionally championed the policy. In Wisconsin, several Democratic bills that would offer paid family leave have languished in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
At a debate in Milwaukee on July 24, Michels vowed to sign a bill that would require businesses to provide their employees with paid family leave.
“We need to make sure that everyone that is looking to find a job has the opportunity to find a job. That’s how you get the greatest health care that you possibly can — get a job,” he said. “I will support health care and time off for mothers and fathers.”
Kleefisch said such a bill was “absolutely something that I would look at as governor.”
“We need to make sure that moms and dads have time to bond with their babies,” she said.
The comments came in response to questions from the moderators about whether the candidates agreed with a proposal by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, that states with abortion bans should offer paid family leave.
The trend of a softened approach appears to have intensified since last Tuesday, when voters in Kansas overwhelmingly struck down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have removed language enshrining reproductive rights in the state. The proposed amendment was the first time anywhere in the U.S. that voters cast ballots on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, and the outcome was widely seen as a victory for abortion rights activists — and a sign that staunch abortion rights opponents could face electoral trouble this cycle.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that Republicans must moderate some of their harsh anti-abortion policies, such as abortion bans without exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape.
“‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was not supposed to be a road map,” she said, referring to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel in which women are forced to give birth.
A trio of conservative Republican senators — Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, Marco Rubio of Florida and Chuck Grassley of Iowa — all told Axios last month, after the Supreme Court's decision but before the Kansas vote, that their party was going to have do more for families with Roe having been overturned.
“We have to start thinking in terms of some of these things. Now that Roe has been overturned, to be more supportive of families and mothers,” Grassley said.
And Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who faces a tough re-election battle, said in a statement just weeks ago that he now supports “exceptions to abortion restrictions in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother” — but he stopped short of calling for the repeal or amendment of the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
The law makes performing an abortion a felony, with doctors who perform the procedure facing up to six years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. It makes an exception only to save the life of the woman — but not for her health or for a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
Anti-abortion right groups also appear to have intensified their emphasis on the importance of social programs that can help pregnant and new mothers.
“We can do more, and we’re going to have to do more,” said National Right to Life President Carol Tobias. “I’ve been very encouraged, because several states, just in the last couple of years, have come forward with great programs. And I’m hoping and expecting to see more.”
Said Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis: “We need to ensure that Ohio has the strongest social service safety net, to ensure that every woman, a woman find themselves in unintended pregnancy or whatever the case may be, has access to the services she needs at the city, county, state level.
“You’ll see us with a more holistic approach to life, taking on more of a social services component,” Gonidakis said.
In a recent interview, Kleefisch responded to questions about whether state legislators should offer paid family leave with a strict abortion ban now in effect.
“I have always been for motherhood and for women, and I’m not buying into this dumb, Democrat, anti-feminist lie that you somehow need to pick between having a child and your own success," she said.
Her campaign offered no proposals when it was asked whether Kleefisch planned to move forward with a paid family leave plan. The Michels campaign didn’t respond to multiple questions about the topic.
Republican voters in Wisconsin said they viewed their candidates' position with mixed feelings. In interviews, many said they agreed with offering paid family leave in principle, but they expressed concern about the toll it might take on small businesses and questioned how much government assistance might be needed.
“If you’re a big company, like Amazon, they really should be made to offer it. But what if you’re a small company? I don’t know how that would really work,” said Jill Brooks, an Oak Creek resident supporting Kleefisch. “I do think there should be something for working mothers, and I do think it’s a genuine thing with Rebecca and Tim Michels, and I think it’s a good thing we’re having the conversation about it now that Roe is gone.”
Rick Eaton, 74, a retired truck driver from Franklin, said that “it really depends on how much time we’re talking about letting them take off.”
“A few weeks, sure, but I think once you’re talking about two or three months, I think it’s a lot to ask of small businesses — and of the state government, if that’s what ends up paying for it,” said Eaton, a Republican who is undecided but leaning toward Kleefisch.
Strategists and politics watchers also expressed some misgivings about whether discussions about paid family leave among Republicans could alienate hard-line conservative voters who are more likely to vote in the primary — particularly economic conservatives who oppose expanding social safety net programs — or take away from the effective focus many Republican campaigns have so far put on inflation, affordability and other pocketbook issues.
“Who are they even talking to? Not Republican primary voters, I’ll tell you that much,” said GOP strategist Bill McCoshen, who isn’t affiliated with either of the two Republican governor’s campaigns.
“I’ve never heard of Republican voters being particularly concerned with paid family leave. It’s just not a kitchen table issue,” he said.
Sykes said, “It’s one thing to say it at a debate, but it might be quite a different thing once all these business groups sit down with Republican legislators to talk about who is going to pay for this.”
Democrats, meanwhile, dismissed the embrace of leave policies as an attempt to distract from Republicans’ support for the 1849 ban.
“It is clear they’re trying to cover up for how harmful that abortion ban that they support is and probably a recognition of how just unpopular and extreme that position is,” said Marshall Cohen, the political director for the Democratic Governors Association.
“We’ll be holding the Republicans accountable for their words, their positions, and educating voters on that, and they’re not going to be able to paper over that,” he added. “It’s going to be very hard for them to pivot and change the conversation.”