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Tim Michels, the Wisconsin GOP nominee for governor, obscures messaging on abortion rights

Michels had said he wouldn't soften his support for a near-total abortion ban in the state. But recently, he has done just that.
Tim Michels
Tim Michels is introduced at a Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial debate on July 24 in Milwaukee.Morry Gash / AP file

Tim Michels, the Republican nominee in Wisconsin’s race for governor, can’t keep his messaging straight on abortion rights — a top issue in the state and nationally.

Michels had until last month remained staunch in his support for an 1849 state law banning abortion in almost all cases, which went back into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June — telling supporters unequivocally in September that he would not soften his stance on the issue.

But in recent days, he has done just that — offering support for policies less hard-line than the 1849 law, while continuing to insist his position hadn't changed.

The latest instance of Michels’ apparent wavering on the issue — a major motivator for Democratic and independent voters in Wisconsin and across the U.S. — came on Tuesday, when he said during a question-and-answer session at the Rotary Club of Milwaukee that he would not enforce a key part of the 1849 law.

“I will never arrest a doctor, as they’re saying. I’m a reasonable guy,” Michels said. “I will not be an authoritarian governor.”

Wisconsin’s 173-year-old 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 otherwise for her health or for a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. 

Michels’ latest comments were first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

The remark stands in stark contrast to comments Michels made during the primary, too, when he called the law an “exact mirror" of his own personal position on abortion rights.

Abortion bans without exceptions remain deeply unpopular across the U.S. A survey released Monday by the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES)/SurveyMonkey found that 86 percent of Americans of all parties think abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. The same survey found that 90 percent of Americans think a woman should be able to legally obtain an abortion if her health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy.

While Michels’ latest comment appears to further soften his position on abortion, the governor doesn’t actually have the power to arrest or charge anyone under the 1849 or any other law. That responsibility falls to district attorneys as well as the state attorney general.

The Republican nominee for that job, Eric Toney, has said that abortion “is and always should have been a state issue” and that, if he is elected, he “will enforce and defend the laws as passed by the legislature and signed into law.” He also told PBS Wisconsin this week that state laws should be changed to allow district attorneys to cross county lines to enforce the abortion ban in other counties in the state.

Democratic incumbent Josh Kaul has said he would refuse to enforce the law, as have several county district attorneys in the state.

Michels' campaign spokesperson Anna Kelly did not address questions from NBC News about whether Michels’ comments represented a repudiation of the 1849 abortion law — given that the governor doesn’t have the power to arrest or charge anyone under it — or whether he supported arresting doctors under the law. (Kelly made that distinction clear in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, telling the outlet that “the DAs should enforce all laws” and that Michels is “not a DA or beat cop arresting anyone.”)

A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, Michels’ opponent, slammed the Republican nominee's answer as misleading.

“Tim Michels has spent two decades opposing exceptions to Wisconsin’s abortion ban and this week, he doubled down on his support for law enforcement locking up doctors who provide abortions,” Evers campaign spokesperson Kayla Anderson said in a statement.

Evers, who along with other Democrats in the state and across the U.S. has made support for abortion rights a central campaign focus, has said he would grant clemency to anyone charged under the law.

In a statement to NBC News, Michels’ campaign maintained that the candidate had not changed his stance on abortion, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Tim’s personal position hasn’t changed,” Kelly said. “He’s always been pro-life, but has said that if the Legislature presented him with a bill that provided abortion exceptions for rape and incest, he would sign it.”

Her statement touches on another aspect of Michels' abortion stance that appears to have shifted.

In September, just days after pledging to not soften his position, Michels said he would support an abortion ban that includes exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

On Friday, during the only debate between Michels and Evers, Michels said that “I am pro-life and I make no apologies for that.”

But he avoided directly answering a question about whether he would, as governor, attempt to stand in the way of — or punish — Wisconsin women seeking abortion care out of state.

That topic, Michels said, was “something we’ll have to sit down and work out,” but he added that he was “not going to be this radical guy with checks at the border.”