MADISON — For more than 40 years, Secretary of State Doug La Follette has toiled in relative obscurity, a sun hat-wearing Democrat who, unlike his counterparts in many other states, is not responsible for elections in Wisconsin, or license plates, or very much at all.
“I’ve run for office many times, and usually the secretary of state’s office is a total sleeper,” said La Follette, speaking in the windowless basement chamber of the State House to which his shrunken office has been relegated. “Nobody cares.”
Not this year.
In recent months, with their party still seized by former president Trump’s election falsehoods, some Republicans have trained their sights on La Follette’s toothless office, hoping to take it over and assume election administration duties currently managed by a bipartisan board — a move Democrats see as a prelude to a power grab.
It has given rise to an unusual campaign promise from an 81-year-old bureaucrat with few responsibilities: If he is reelected in November, he says, he wants to keep it that way — at least when it comes to election administration.
“I think democracy is in real trouble,” said La Follette, who seems certain Republicans in the state Legislature would not give the office election-related duties if he wins in the fall. “It’s one little thing I can do, to try to keep Wisconsin election results independent of politics.”
The battle for America’s election machinery is emerging as a major theme in the midterms, with Republicans who echoed Trump’s attacks on the integrity of American elections seeking offices in which they would control future elections. There have been high-profile advances, such as when election-denying state Senator Doug Mastriano won Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial primary last week. But many of the efforts are happening in lower-profile races, outside of view.
La Follette has never had election oversight power, and lawmakers have cut many of his other duties over the years — although the small clerical role he plays at the end of a presidential election drew more notice in 2020. Wisconsin Republicans’ new interest in empowering an office they long marginalized has alarmed democracy experts who see it as part of the party’s wider war on election administrators after President Biden beat Trump here by the narrow margin of about 20,000 votes.
“This effort to change the way the system operates in Wisconsin is ... part of a much broader effort to take power over elections and put it in the hands of partisan actors and also ultimately to take power away from American voters,” said Joanna Lydgate, founder and chief executive of the States United Democracy Center, a bipartisan group.
Republicans here have relentlessly attacked the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a bipartisan body set up in 2016 by conservative firebrand Governor Scott Walker. They launched an error-ridden review of the 2020 election, while some in the party have come to embrace an effort to “decertify” the last election — which is legally impossible.
Kevin Kennedy, the former head of the previous election overseer, a nonpartisan body that was replaced by Walker, called the GOP’s interest in changing the job “shockingly scary.”
“They have so much control on one level, but they want more,” he said.
Republicans have depicted their interest in expanding the office’s duties as a mundane attempt to make Wisconsin more like the dozens of other states where a single top election official answers to voters.
“We have an election confidence problem in Wisconsin, and I am willing to step in and say I can be the person that can hopefully fill that void,” said state Representative Amy Loudenbeck, one of multiple Republicans vying to unseat La Follette and expand the duties of the office, even though she previously voted to shrink the office.
While Loudenbeck has distanced herself from calls to decertify the 2020 election, she paused for 15 seconds when asked by the Globe if Biden had won fair and square, and asked for the question to be restated. “I acknowledged that Joe Biden is our president, but the fairly part is something that is the main concern,” she said.
To expand the duties of the office, Republicans would likely need to control both the governor’s office — currently held by Tony Evers, a Democrat seeking reelection — and the Legislature, already majority Republican. Two Republican candidates for governor have called to do so, including one, state Representative Timothy Ramthun, who has pushed to decertify the 2020 election.
Democrats have cast Evers as their most important bulwark against election subversion, since he can veto Republican bills. But if it all came down to La Follette, he would be an unlikely figure to be Democrats’ last line of defense in the state.
La Follette does not campaign alongside the rest of his party’s candidates, or campaign vigorously at all, for that matter. He complains loudly about the trouble he is having gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot, which are due June 1.
“He’s a singularly unique character who has his quirks,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin Democratic consultant. “There aren’t a lot of them left like Doug.”
He has drawn a primary challenge from Alexia Sabor, chair of the Dane County Democrats, who has promised to use the bully pulpit of the office in a way La Follette has not, by speaking up for voting rights and defending fair elections.
“Republicans are saying, ‘We’ve got a guy in the basement, he doesn’t do anything,’” said Sabor. “If we’re gonna start proving the value of this position, if we want to keep it out of Republican hands, now’s the time to do that.”
But La Follette has pointed to his record — he has been elected 11 times, including in Republican wave years such as 2010 — to make his case.
“I have the best chance of winning in November,” La Follette said, who added that he contemplated retirement before Republicans took aim at his job. “If that wasn’t true about me, I’d be on the way to Ecuador.”
A former environmental activist who is lanky and spry, La Follette has the charismatic charm of Bernie Sanders and a penchant for talking about passions unrelated to his job, such as the Porcupine caribou of Alaska and other natural wonders.
“This is me at the Rocky Mountain lab, I’m over 12,000 feet, coring a tree,” he recently told a reporter, pointing to a photograph on the wall of his office. ”Did you ever core a tree?”
What he does have, however, is a very famous name. La Follette says his great great grandfather was the brother of the father of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the progressive stalwart and former Wisconsin governor.“ So I am a first cousin, twice removed, I think,” he said.
It’s an association so valuable a political opponent questioned his ancestry during La Follette’s own ill-fated 1970 run for Congress, prompting him to produce his birth certificate to settle the matter.
“I have to be honest,” he said. “My name is a very good Wisconsin political name.”
La Follette was elected to his current position in 1974, just as the secretary of state’s office lost its election powers during a rush of a post-Watergate government reform. He left to run for lieutenant governor in 1978 and lost. He ran for his old job in 1982, unseating his replacement, Vel Phillips, the first Black person elected to statewide office in Wisconsin.
“There’s a core set of duties that include corporations, trademarks, notary publics ... and those were here. And Governor Thompson took them away,” La Follette said, referring to the Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who left office in 2001. “And Governor Walker took more away.”
In 2011, he landed himself in the news by delaying the publishing of a controversial anti-union bill. The legislature later stripped him of more power, cut his budget, and moved his office to the basement.
Now, to his dismay, his only responsibilities include certifying documents needed for international business transactions and serving on a public lands board.
But he has one other task that for decades was also unremarkable: authenticating the governor’s signature on the state’s certificate of election.
In 2020, La Follette received two sets of election paperwork: The real, Democratic slate, and a fake slate of Republicans.
“I looked at it and put it in a drawer and ignored it,” La Follette said. It’s still in his office in a green folder.
His worries about what might have happened if a Republican had been in the office are a key part of his motivation to run again. “The only thing I can do is make sure the secretary of state is not in a position to fiddle with the electors,” he said.
If La Follette makes the ballot, he will be in for the fight of his life, first against a qualified Democrat in Sabor. If he wins, he will likely face a determined Republican in an environment that seems to favor the GOP.
“He’s not a crusader, he’s not in the public eye,“ said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. But, he added, “He appears to be steadfast in wanting to defend the office as being separate from the election infrastructure in the state.”