Wisconsin is a microcosm of the country. It is narrowly divided politically, although the Democrats have a slight advantage in the popular vote in statewide elections. And just like in Washington, the Republicans have structural advantages in government that give them excessive power.
Conservatives have controlled the state Supreme Court since 2008, and Republicans have one hammer blow to the legislature since 2011, when the party won an impenetrable majority after taking the lead in a Gulf election.
Wisconsin is holding an election for a seat on the Supreme Court tomorrow, and it’s no exaggeration to declare the race the top 10-year term race. the most important US elections of 2023. It’s all the most expensive court race in the country’s history. The candidates and the super-PACs that support them have spent nearly three times as much on this race as they did in previous court elections.
Why is a single state race crucial? Because the party that prevails will have a 4 to 3 majority, and this is the first US election in which the winner will single-handedly determine two major issues: the fate of abortion rights and whether the state has a functional representative democracy. The winner will also set the course for the 2024 presidential election in a state where fewer than 23,000 votes were decided in four of the last six such races.
If the liberal nominee, Janet Protasiewicz, wins, Wisconsin will almost certainly become the first state to allow abortion again after banning it with last summer’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. And because Democrats are likely to contest the makeup of the state’s legislative districts if the court has a liberal majority, the almost supermajorities that Republicans enjoy in the state legislature also likely would not survive until the 2024 election.
A victory for the conservative candidate, Daniel Kelly, would mean abortion remains illegal, the gerrymandered maps stand, and Wisconsin remains a dysfunctional democracy for the foreseeable future.
The biggest prize
Abortion became illegal in the state last June, when the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion and put the question before the states. Wisconsin’s near-total ban on abortion — enacted in 1849, a year after statehood and seven decades before women could vote — suddenly became law again.
Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz) is a judge and former prosecutor from Milwaukee who has emphasized her support for abortion rights in such a way that no one could be confused about how she would rule on the 1849 law. At job interviews and television advertising and during the lone general election debate, she has emphasized that she believes abortion decisions should be left to women and their doctors, not state legislators.
Kelly, a conservative former state Supreme Court Justice who lost a reelection bid in 2020has the support of the state’s leading anti-abortion organizations and has repeatedly stressed his opposition to the practice.
Protasiewicz has bet her support for abortion rights will boost Democratic voters and convince enough independents and moderate Republicans to win. It’s a big bet on the continuation of the politics that drove Democrats to beat expectations in last year’s midterm elections.
Democracy is at stake
When I landed my first full-time journalism job at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2002, Wisconsin was an evenly divided state, but one where control frequently swung back and forth between the two sides.
That ended after the 2010 Republican wave, when the party swept both chambers of the legislature and Scott Walker was elected governor. The GOP weakened the public sector unions and made itself the most aggressive gerrymander in the country—almost a supermajority in both chambers in a 50-50 state. In 2020, Joe Biden won Wisconsin but wore only 37 of the 99 districts of the State Assembly.
Republicans also changed state law to make voting more difficult, enacting a strict voter identification law, while the state Supreme Court last year banned drop boxes for absentee ballots. Wisconsin is now in the rankings 47th out of 50 states on how easy it is to voteaccording to the 2022 Cost of Voting Index.
Protasiewicz calls the maps drawn by Republicans “manipulated,” has suggested the labor law is unconstitutional and says she agrees with the liberal dissent in last year’s Supreme Court drop box ruling. Kelly says redistricting is a political problem that should be solved by legislators – the people who created it.
This race will also have real impact on national issues.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court was the only one in the nation to agree to hear Donald Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election, ultimately rejecting — by a single vote — his attempt to throw away 200,000 ballots in the state’s two major Democratic counties. Kelly, when I interviewed him in February, declined to say whether he agreed with the decision to maintain the 2020 results.
The 2024 presidential election in the state may be close enough to be contested in court again. New congressional cards can also bring into play up to three Republican seats in the House.
Tomorrow’s other major elections: The mayoral race in Chicago has focused on crime. The election pits a former school principal, Paul Vallas, who campaigns largely on a pro-police platform, against Brandon Johnson, a district commissioner who advocates solutions beyond policing. This is what matters in four districts of the city.
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