By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With two months to go before Election Day, conservative and liberal groups are swooping into Wisconsin’s attorney general race and scouring court records for fodder to attack Republican Brad Schimel and Democrat Susan Happ as soft on crime.
Schimel, Waukesha County’s district attorney, has been in the race since October, when Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, was the surprise winner in a three-way Democratic primary last month.
Both candidates have portrayed themselves as hard-nosed prosecutors but they remain relatively unknown. Happ has run only one television ad and that aired before the Aug. 12 primary. Schimel hasn’t produced any. A Marquette University Law School poll last month found about 80 percent of likely voters either had no opinion on the candidates or hadn’t heard enough about them to form one.
The conservative investigative group Media Trackers and liberal research group One Wisconsin Now have rushed into the void, poring over years of courthouse records searching for cases to back up claims that the other side’s candidate is too weak on crime to serve as attorney general.
The groups have plenty to work with — Schimel has been a Waukesha prosecutor for nearly 25 years and Happ handled criminal defense at her own law firm before she became district attorney in 2008 — and they’re not afraid to get down into the weeds.
Media Trackers, for example, has accused Happ of going easy on an alleged child molester who had purchased her home in 2012, a year before her office charged him. The group also has publicized records that indicate Happ in 2000 asked a judge for a 10-to-12 year sentence for a child sex offender she was defending when he faced more than 300 years in the state prison system, saying she didn’t believe he was a predator.
One Wisconsin Now, meanwhile, has compiled a list of nearly 10 cases where Schimel reached deals with defendants or reduced charges against them in sex assault and child pornography cases. In one 2008 case, for example, Schimel recommended probation for a man convicted of sexually assaulting his nieces some 30 years earlier.
Ed Fallone, a Marquette University law professor who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for state Supreme Court justice in 2013, said the groups’ efforts are designed to play into a general perception that the attorney general is a front-line criminal prosecutor. The attorney general actually acts more as an administrator, he said, but calling your opponent weak on crime resonates with voters.
“I don’t think either one has an advantage on this issue,” Fallone said. “What really matters is what the majority of those who go to the polls believe. That’s why you see these harsh attacks. They’re effective in reaching uninformed voters and creating a perception in their minds.”
Brian Sikma, Media Trackers’ communications director, said the group is trying to bring some transparency to an extremely important race by researching Happ’s record.
“We’re just looking at her record,” Sikma said. “We found information that indicates during various points of her life she hasn’t been very tough on crime. The comments you make as a defense attorney are relevant when you run for top cop.”
Schimel said he expects case resolutions will be an issue in the campaign but he wants to focus on public safety and defending Wisconsin’s laws.
Scot Ross, of One Wisconsin Now, said in an email: “When someone like District Attorney Brad Schimel talks tough on crime and the record doesn’t match it, people have the right to know.”
Happ’s campaign has tried to call a truce. Her campaign manager, Josh Lease, issued a statement saying both candidates’ lengthy experience makes them both vulnerable to “gotcha research.”
“The records are there. They’re all public. And both sides could fire these missiles off every day,” Lease said. “That’s not what we want this campaign to be about.”
In the same statement, however, Lease pointed out Schimel reached a 2007 plea deal with a drunken driver who was sentenced to 75 days in jail but re-offended and killed two people before he was due to report behind bars.