MADISON — Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general candidate won’t commit to voting for Donald Trump in 2024 if he runs for president again, putting him at odds with other top Republicans on the ballot in the battleground state this November.
Eric Toney, a district attorney looking to unseat Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, has a more complicated relationship with Trump than other Republicans running statewide in Wisconsin. Toney voted for Trump in 2020, even though he privately referred to him as “dumb dumb Donald,” and unlike some Republicans, Toney has said President Joe Biden's election was legitimate and there's no way to overturn the results.
Unlike Sen. Ron Johnson and gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, Toney does not have an endorsement from Trump. Johnson has been a close Trump ally for years and Michels appeared at a rally with Trump just before his August primary victory. Michels supports a Trump 2024 presidential run, while Johnson has stopped short of endorsing a run as he faces a tough reelection against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
But Toney, the Fond du Lac district attorney, dodged the question in a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press, saying he's focused on his own campaign.
“I’ll see who’s on the ballot and make my decision then,” Toney said. “I’m focused on 2022.”
Questions about allegiance to Trump have been a litmus test for Republicans in Wisconsin and nationwide this election year, fueled by the former president's unfounded claims that the presidential election was stolen. Trump-endorsed candidates have won GOP attorney general primaries in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Ohio this year.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Anthony Chergosky said Toney barely pulled through the primary and his choice to distance himself from Trump carries risk.
The GOP has rallied around Trump since the FBI raided his Mar-A-Lago resort and not signaling support could cost Toney money from party donors, Chergosky said. Toney also could create a major rift with Michels and make it harder for the Republicans to present a unified front, Chergosky said.
“What Toney is doing is extremely unusual in the broader landscape of Republican politics,” Chergosky said. “He really stands in a small circle of Republican nominees who are willing to distance themselves from Trump ... surely this could have the effect of reducing the enthusiasm of the Republican grassroots for (Toney's) candidacy.”
Toney's views on Trump — whatever they are by 2024 — could play a crucial role in whether Trump wins Wisconsin if he runs again.
Trump still argues widespread election fraud cost him the state in 2020, even though multiple reviews and court rulings have confirmed Biden defeated him by about 21,000 votes. If Trump were to narrowly lose Wisconsin again in 2024 and raise questions about fraud, it would be up to Toney as attorney general to defend the election results. Should he choose to stand down, Trump would have an easier path in court.
Toney has taken a firmer stand against Trump's arguments than Michels or Johnson. He told AP there was no widespread fraud that tipped the 2020 election and that he doesn’t support decertifying Biden’s win in Wisconsin because it’s legally impossible.
“When the topic comes up, I say, ‘No, it’s not lawful. It cannot be done,’” Toney said. “It’s important that we enforce the rule of law, not just when we agree with it. There was no widespread voter fraud that would have overturned the election results, but President Trump or anyone else should have been able to file any lawsuit that they wanted to look at if there were any issues with how election laws were followed, because that’s how our democracy works.”
Despite saying there was no widespread fraud in Wisconsin, Toney charged five people with election violations for registering to vote using UPS mailbox addresses. One of them was convicted of a misdemeanor in July. The other cases are pending.
The charging decision drew plenty of criticism from Democrats. Kaul said charging the voters was a waste of resources. Toney responded that the cases were clear violations of Wisconsin election laws and said Kaul himself has said that election fraud should be prosecuted.
“He has no credibility and he’s a hypocrite on these issues,” Toney said.
Kaul told the AP this month that election fraud is exceedingly rare and Toney's decision to play up the charges shows he's pandering to the Republican base's conspiracy theories.