Wisconsin Supreme Court victory adds wind to Democrats’ sails
Democrats’ victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race on Tuesday is energizing the party in the perennial battleground state likely to play a major role in 2024.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, seen as the liberal candidate, won the election Tuesday night for a vacant seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, seen as the conservative candidate. It will be the first time in 15 years that the state’s high court will have a liberal majority.
Her win gave the party a boost of momentum in the Badger State, where Democrats are gearing up for both a presidential election and race for Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s (D) seat.
“If I’m Tammy Baldwin, I’m feeling pretty good right now,” said Miles Coleman, an associate editor with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Baldwin has not officially declared a reelection run.
Democrats felt optimistic, too, about the recent electoral results — and what it says for abortion rights as a galvanizing issue.
“My Republican friends have their work cut out for them,” said Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki, who said Republicans “continue to bleed support in suburban communities.”
“I think the reason for that is pretty straightforward: They’ve got an abortion problem. And as that issue continues to drive our politics and the conversation for probably the next couple of years, they have got to figure it out or they are going to continue to struggle when it comes to putting together a statewide coalition,” he added.
Though judicial elections often don’t receive heightened national attention, more than $45 million poured into the Wisconsin Supreme Court race by one estimate. The purple state is among a handful of key swing states that have long determined consequential elections, including at the presidential and Senate level.
The state Supreme Court itself made headlines in 2020 after it narrowly upheld President Biden’s win in Wisconsin following legal challenges to the election results, offering a preview of what could be expected ahead of 2024 and underscoring the importance of what would normally be considered a more low-key court race.
Even before Tuesday’s results, Democrats and experts alike believed that abortion rights would be a driving issue in the race. The stakes were front-and-center for Wisconsin voters, as an 1849 abortion law that restricts access to the medical procedure with very few exceptions is likely to make its way to the high court.
Wisconsin’s attorney general filed a lawsuit last year contesting the ban, which was put back on the books following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But the election also has clear consequences for possible challenges to the state’s maps, which Protasiewicz notably called “rigged” during the race, and potential 2024 election result disputes.
Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party, also argues that abortion as a central issue in the race is linked with the issue of democracy, “because Republicans have done everything in their power to prevent the majority from being able to shape our laws around access to abortion,” he said.
“The gerrymandered maps were a way of locking in the abortion ban. Republicans’ refusal to allow a public referendum was a way of locking in the abortion ban,” he continued. “And so what voters want is a chance to actually shape the laws that govern them, and especially in its most personal and intimate of decisions, and Republicans refused [to] allow for that freedom.”
Protasiewicz notably outperformed previous race results in many of the Democratic stronghold counties, while Kelly underperformed in some of the counties that went for former President Trump in 2020.
Biden won Dane County by 53 points in 2020, whereas Protasiewicz won it on Tuesday by 64 points. In Milwaukee County, Biden won by 40 points, while Protasiewicz won with a wider margin of 46 points.
In Waukesha County, Trump won by 21 points, but Kelly’s margin reduced to 16 points. In Outagamie County, Trump won by 10 points, while Kelly lost by 2 points to Protasiewicz.
Democratic strategist Eddie Vale noted that Democrats saw a one-two punch where they were able to both maximize turnout among their base and perform better in the suburbs.
“They’ve got the base fired up and turned out, but they also did that at the same time as continuing to do better in the suburbs, and continuing to do better in the WOW counties,” Vale explained, referring to Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties. “And they just keep narrowing the margins there. So Republicans are turning off independents, at the same time they’re firing up the Democratic base.”
Members of the party were also encouraged by turnout during a special election for the state Senate District 8, where Republican Dan Knodl faced off against Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin. While Knodl ultimately prevailed there, he won his race by close to 2 points — a smaller margin of victory compared to Trump’s 12-point win there in 2016 and 5-point win in 2020, according to The New York Times.
“That’s not something I would expect to see considering [President] Biden’s approval is still pretty low, inflation still pretty high,” Coleman said of Democrats’ performance in the special election.
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin GOP, explained the state Supreme Court race underscored the importance of reaching out to independent voters.
“While our base turned out, we lost independents, and that’s been a problem for us for a number of years now. A couple campaigns have been more effective than others at winning them over, but that’s generally been the story in a competitive race: If you don’t win independents in addition to turning out your base, you come short,” he explained. “And traditionally, the state party has focused on turning out the base, and the campaigns and outside groups have focused on messaging to independents.”
But Jefferson suggested that the state party may have to play a larger role in turning out independents in some races going forward.
On the state Senate special election, he noted that it was “another example where we can beat them when we’re under attack on these issues because we were outspent badly in that race as well” while also acknowledging that “the suburban areas have been getting more difficult for us.”
That’s also in spite of the fact that Democrats sought to meddle in the GOP primary for the race in an effort to elevate the more far-right candidate, Republican Janel Brandtjen, an election denier who committed a faux pas among Wisconsin Republicans by supporting the Trump-backed challenger to Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) last midterm cycle.
Vos won his primary, and Brandtjen soon found herself kicked out of her GOP caucus.
Wikler signaled that playing in future Republican primaries was not off the table, even though the practice in other elections has drawn criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats.
“I will say that … at every step and every campaign, we have to do everything we can to protect the basic freedoms that every Wisconsinite and every person deserves,” he said.
But Jefferson argued that Democrats in the state are “going to reap what they sow” if they meddle in future primaries.
While Democrats are feeling more optimistic heading into 2024, the Wisconsin GOP executive director argued “momentum goes back and forth,” saying he remembered feeling similarly about the party’s outlook after the GOP captured the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2008 only to see former President Obama win the state later that year.
Still, he suggested that Republicans have some work to do on better engaging with independent voters ahead of 2024.
“Our people who are delivering the message need to take into account independent voters more than they have. We need to put together a coalition of the base and swing voters,” Jefferson said. “And time and again, we have been coming up short with swing voters in this state in recent years, and we need to put that to an end.”
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