What Happens in Wisconsin May Not Stay in Wisconsin

Are Republicans sick and tired of all the #winning yet?
April 14, 2020
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Goodbye to all that (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Karma being the bitch Goddess that she is, Republican-backed conservative supreme court justice Dan Kelly was defeated by his liberal challenger in Wisconsin. And it was not even close.

That election was, of course, the reason the state’s GOP insisted on holding the election last Tuesday, despite pleas from health officials to postpone the vote or shift to mail-in ballots. The images of long lines of voters in make-shift masks—contrasted with Republican assembly speaker Robin Vos in full PPE insisting that voting was “incredibly safe”—were instantly iconic.

State Republicans wagered that the horrifically bad optics would be worth it, if they could just save Kelly’s seat.

They failed in spectacular fashion.

When they finally got around to counting the votes from last week’s pandemic election, Kelly’s liberal challenger Jill Karofsky beat him by more than 10 percentage points—which translates to more than 120,000 votes. It was a blowout in a state that has become notorious for its close elections. Despite their efforts to make voting as difficult as possible, Republicans were overwhelmed by a tsunami of mail-in votes.

Although state court races in Wisconsin are technically non-partisan, races for the high court have become nakedly red-versus-blue affairs. As I wrote last week in Politico: “It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the fight over control of the state Supreme Court has become a partisan and cultural flashpoint in Wisconsin, as the campaigns have become increasingly contentious, polarized and expensive. In some respects, the scorched-earth fights over the Wisconsin bench presaged the most vitriolic battles at the federal level…”

Adding an extra fillip of toxicity to this year’s race was the Trumpfication of the contest. Trump repeatedly tweeted his support for the “non-partisan” incumbent.

There are important caveats here: Spring elections are not necessarily a reliable indicator of what will happen in November; the vote in the presidential election will be much larger and we don’t yet know what the electorate will look like. Inevitably, November’s contest will be dominated by the fallout from the coronavirus and the economic downturn, which is all unpredictable. A strong case could also be made that the fundamentals of this election favored the liberal candidate, despite the confusion and the pandemic.

And although the race was effectively over before last Tuesday, the Democratic presidential primary candidates were still on the ballot, which undoubtedly added considerably to the turnout of liberal voters. (The GOP had been so worried about having the court race on the same ballot as the Democratic primary that at one point they actually considered moving the date of the election altogether.)

Democratic turnout may also have been boosted by elections for local officials in cities like Milwaukee.

But all of that notwithstanding: the scope and nature of Kelly’s defeat was historically humiliating.

No incumbent supreme court justice had been defeated since 2008, when a conservative challenger ousted liberal justice Louis Butler. That victory turned out to be part of a remarkable run for conservatives who would go on to build a 5-2 majority on the court. (It will now be 4-3.)

And until Monday night, no incumbent conservative justice appointed by a Republican governor had been defeated. (Kelly had been appointed by former Governor Scott Walker.)

Beyond the historical scope of the loss, however, Republicans should be concerned about the way the liberal candidate won, because it is a blueprint for a Democratic resurgence.

Their formula for winning Wisconsin looks roughly like this: Run up big margins in Milwaukee and Dane Counties, cut into GOP margins in the suburban WOW Counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington), win western Wisconsin, and hold Republican margins down in the rural parts of the state.

Which is basically what happened here.  As Reid Epstein noted in the New York Times, “Wisconsin’s map on Monday night looked like a dream general election result for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee—stronger than typical for Democrats in the suburbs and a respectable showing among the state’s blue-collar white voters in rural counties.”

Ominously for Republicans, Kelly’s margin shrank in all of the crucial suburban counties:

The liberal candidate made gains throughout the eastern part of the state, including the suburbs, while also making big gains in the western part of the state. While cautioning against drawing too many conclusions for November, polling guru Charles Franklin also notes that the challenger Karofsky won Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago counties—swing counties that had been trending Republican.

But it was the overall margin that stunned both parties. Even with all of the caveats above, several things seemed clear: the vote reflects a surge in Democratic enthusiasm and suggests a surprisingly effective turn-out operation in a state that could determine the outcome of this November’s presidential election.

That doesn’t mean that Biden will the state in November. But there was no good news for the GOP or Trump out of Wisconsin last night.

And at some point Republicans are going to have to look at exactly what has been happening across the country over the last three years:

  • A Democrat wins a Senate race in Alabama
  • A Democrat becomes governor in Kentucky
  • A Democrat recaptures the governorship of New Jersey
  • Democrats take control of the House of Representatives
  • Democrats win unified control of the state government in Virginia
  • Liberal Jill Karofsky blows out an incumbent conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court judge

And when they do study these results they’re going to have to ask themselves: If this is what “winning” under Trump looks like, then what’s going to happen to the GOP if he loses?

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.