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Wisconsin attorney general race focuses on both candidates' handling of sexual assault cases

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MILWAUKEE — Sexual assault became the focus of the Wisconsin attorney general's race Thursday, with each party accusing the other's candidate of mishandling such cases during their work as prosecutors.

Democrats on Thursday accused the Republican candidate of cutting a deal that let a sex offender off too easy, while the Republican Party filed a complaint with the state elections board, accusing the Democratic candidate of misconduct in a sexual assault case.

Both parties' allegations appear aimed at swaying female voters, and one political scientist said that while negative campaigning wasn't likely to win either candidate votes, it could make a difference in the close race by getting some voters, namely Republican women, to stay home. A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed Republican Brad Schimel and Democrat Susan Happ about even in the race for the office held by retiring Republican J.B. Van Hollen.

Both candidates are district attorneys with similar crime-fighting records. Happ has tried to distinguish herself by taking strong stands on issues important to women, such as access to reproductive health care and pay equity. She has said she would not enforce a state law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, while Schimel would.

The conservative investigative group Media Trackers has worked to diminish Happ's appeal with allegations that her office went easy on sex offenders in two cases. In one, a man who bought Happ's home in 2009 was not charged with assaulting a teenager until after he paid off his debt in 2012. Then in March, one of Happ's assistant district attorneys agreed to defer prosecution of the man, Daniel Reynolds, if he agreed to monitoring and evaluations.

Wisconsin GOP Executive Director Joe Fadness filed a complaint Wednesday with the Government Accountability Board, accusing Happ of misconduct in that case. Happ spokesman Josh Lease dismissed it as "baseless."

PHOTO: FILE - In this combination of file photos are Republican Brad Schimel, left, and Democrat Susan Happ. Schimel, Waukesha County’s district attorney, and Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, are candidates in Wisconsin’s attorney general race. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this combination of file photos are Republican Brad Schimel, left, and Democrat Susan Happ. Schimel, Waukesha County’s district attorney, and Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, are candidates in Wisconsin’s attorney general race. (AP Photo/File)

"District Attorney Happ did everything right, followed the rules laid out by the State Supreme Court, and screened herself off from any decisions about this case," Lease said. "We are confident that will be GAB's finding and conclusion."

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party released a statement highlighting a Waukesha County case in which a 19-year-old man sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl. Schimel eventually allowed Nicholas Miller to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges. Miller was sentenced to probation but later served six months in jail for violating his parole conditions.

"Schimel the candidate says he is concerned about sexual assault victims, but Schimel the District Attorney repeatedly made deals that let the perpetrators off lightly," Democratic chairman Mike Tate said in a statement.

Schimel's spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the allegation was just an attempt to deflect attention from the Reynolds case.

"In this case, Brad Schimel worked with the victim and her family and the ultimate resolution of the case saw the accused convicted, placed on the sex offender registry and serve time in jail," Koremenos said.

Richard Matland, a political scientist and visiting scholar at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the GOP offense indicates the party may be concerned about Republican women crossing over to vote for Happ. Research has shown that negative messages are good at "demobilizing voters," Matland said.

"You're not going to convince people to vote against that person and vote for you, but you can convince them to just not go out and vote or skip that race on the ballot," he said. And, he added, that could be enough to make a difference in a race likely to be decided by a few percentage points.

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