MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette said Monday that he plans to travel to Africa just as the primary campaign season kicks into high gear, banking that his name recognition is so strong he can afford to leave the country with his job on the line.
La Follette told The Associated Press that he plans to leave on a trip to Kenya and Zimbabwe on Sunday and doesn’t plan to return to Wisconsin until “early July.” The 81 year-old Democrat said he booked the trip two years ago but had to postpone it due to the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn't want to lose his down payment.
The trip comes as La Follette faces a challenge within his own party for his job and with Republicans targeting his office.
“It’s probably not the best time, but I had no choice unless I had to forfeit the payment I made for it," he said. "So I decided that life has to go on.”
The stakes are high for the sleepy office because Republicans want to shift election oversight from the state elections commission to the secretary of state, following the model of more than 30 other states. Democrats fear that could allow Republicans to improperly influence certification of Wisconsin elections, particularly the 2024 presidential contest.
Worried that La Follette may lack the energy to compete, Dane County Democratic Party Chairwoman Alexia Sabor is challenging La Follette for the party’s nomination.
La Follette plans to stay in small lodges with a group of 10 to 15 people and spend his days on excursions looking at wildlife. Earlier this year, he said he was so scared of contracting the coronavirus he didn’t know how he would circulate his nomination papers across Wisconsin, although he ultimately did manage to secure the 2,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot. He said he now feels the pandemic has subsided enough that it’s safe to travel overseas.
“I’ll wear my double mask and shield on the airplane,” he said.
La Follette — a distant relative of “Fighting” Bob La Follette, a progressive governor and 1924 presidential candidate — was first elected secretary of state in 1974. After a failed try for lieutenant governor in 1978, he won the office in 1982 and has won reelection nine times.
The Wisconsin primaries are Aug. 9. State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, Jay Schroeder and Justin Schmidtka are running in a three-way Republican primary.
La Follette said he's not particularly worried about not being able to campaign in the crucial weeks leading up to the primary. The lodges have internet service so he can stay in touch, he said, and he's confidant that voters already know plenty about him.
“I’m sure my opponent will try to make hay out of it, but it’s not like I’m an unknown candidate,” he said. “People know who am I. The issues are simple. Who has the best chance of winning in November? I am that candidate. If my opponent tries to drag out any other issues like I'm too old or I’m in Africa, that doesn't make any difference. The issue is the same. Who has the best chance to beat the Republican?”
Sabor accused La Follette of disengaging with voters.
“This trip demonstrates the same disrespect for voters that Doug has shown for taxpayers his entire 40-plus years in public office,” she said in a text her campaign consultant, Sachin Chedda, forwarded to the AP. “He couldn't go out and get signatures but he can go on safari?"
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1
Todd Richmond, The Associated Press