Democrat Doug La Follette ended an era in Wisconsin politics on Friday when he resigned as secretary of state after close to five decades in office, a period where his never powerful post has become weaker and weaker over time. Gov. Tony Evers quickly announced that he was appointing former state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who dropped out of the 2022 Senate race shortly before the Democratic primary, to an office that operates with just a $250,000 annual budget and does not oversee elections.
La Follette is a member of a prominent Badger State political family that included his great-great uncle “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the legendary progressive Republican senator who ran for president as an independent in 1924; the senator’s son and namesake, Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., also made his mark in American politics before losing his 1946 GOP primary to none other than Joe McCarthy.
Doug La Follette, for his part, outpaced those two relatives in sheer political longevity, but he never managed to rise above secretary of state despite many attempts. The Democrat lost a 1970 primary for southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District by 20 votes to eventual winner Les Aspin, who would resign in 1993 to become Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, before prevailing in a state Senate race two years later. La Follette won the secretary of state’s office in 1974 but gave it up in 1978 to run for lieutenant governor: He earned the Democratic nod, but the ticket led by Gov. Martin Schreiber lost 54-45 to the Republican team of Lee Dreyfus and Russell Olson.
La Follette took a distant third in the 1981 nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction, but he decisively regained the secretary of state’s office the next year. (Incumbent Vel Philips, who was the first African American elected statewide, took a weak third in the primary after critics accused her of doing little in office.)
La Follette would repeatedly run for other jobs in years when he wasn’t up for re-election, but he’d lose primaries for U.S. Senate in 1988, the 1st Congressional District in 1996, and governor in the 2012 recall. Despite these setbacks, though, La Follette was always able to hold on as secretary of state even in terrible cycles like 2014, a GOP wave year where he was the one Democrat to win statewide.
During these decades the secretary of state’s office, which was never especially influential, became even less so. In 1986, the legislature stripped it of its oversight power over lobbyists and its ability to probe ethics violations, and later sessions saw more cuts. The AP wrote last year that the job’s “only responsibilities are issuing travel documents and serving on a timber board.”
La Follette, who is 82, decided to run one more time in 2022, saying he wanted to stop GOP plans to put this office in charge of elections if they won. The incumbent prevailed 48.3-48.0 over Republican Amy Loudenbeck before announcing his departure Friday. “After many years of frustration, I've decided I don't want to spend the next three and a half years trying to run an office without adequate resources and staffing levels,” La Follette declared, adding, “After decades of public service, I must now focus on my personal needs.”