Wisconsin is one of the United States’ (US) most significant battle grounds in U.S. presidential elections. With a long history as a swing state dating all the way back into the 1800s, presidential candidates have won with the slim majority of a single percentage point three times since the beginning of the 21st century. Now, the state is the scene of arguably the most important U.S. vote of 2023 – the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4th. The election – which could tilt the four to three court either ‘blue’ or ‘red’ –will give the judges the power to decide heavily contented issues such as abortion rights and gerrymandering. While Biden won the state with a slim majority in 2020, the state’s make-up and demographics give an idea of what is to be expected in upcoming elections and Wisconsin’s future as a swing state. We also interviewed Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson who shared his insight on the upcoming Supreme Court election.
To understand Wisconsin’s political division, it is worth looking at Wisconsin’s rural-urban make-up. Various experts have identified this divide as a relevant factor to explain the state’s red-blue-divide. The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officially classifies 32 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties as rural areas. Similarly, the US Census Bureau designates 49 percent of the state as rural and locating 13 percent of the state’s population in rural Wisconsin. Rural voters in the United States increasingly tilt toward voting Republican while urban voters have a strong Democratic base. The political implications of this rural-urban division have significantly grown since the early 2000s — in the country as a whole but also in the state of Wisconsin. Suburban counties are, meanwhile, evenly divided between supporters of either party and therefore are of particular interest to U.S. presidential candidates campaigning in Wisconsin. While the state’s geographic layout plays a role in explaining Wisconsin’s political make-up, considering the state’s demographics and voter composition is also of significance. According to a FiveThirtyEight poll, Wisconsin’s political tilt toward the Republican party is significantly influenced by the 59 percent of white, male voters aged 25 and older and without a college-degree – the voter category most likely to have voted for Trump in the 2020 general elections.
Wisconsin is, as State Senator Chris Larson explains, a “very purple state”. While presidential candidates have always cut it close with their victories, up until 2016, Wisconsinites had voted for the Democratic candidate consecutively since 1988. But not only the general elections have been close calls. “[….] The 2019 Supreme Court race came down within less than 6,000 votes statewide. We also had the closest U.S. Senate race in our state’s history a few months ago which set a record for spending”. In the end, it was also decided by less than 1 percent”, Senator Larson explains.
Trump won the 2016 presidential elections in Wisconsin with approximately 24,000 votes vis-à-vis his opponent Hillary Clinton. Voter turnout reached only 66 percent, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission – an all-time low in the state in the previous 20 years. Senator Larson maintains that “Democratic voters were encouraged to vote by absentee ballot and use everything in their power to make sure their vote counted. Donald Trump, on the other hand, heaped suspicion on early vote efforts and encouraged his supporters to show up on Election Day instead.” Places that usually proved a safe win for Republican candidates, such as the Milwaukee suburbs, did not produce the expected results that they had for Republican candidates in previous elections.
The 2020 elections, on the other hand, significantly mobilized voters to show up. Joe Biden turned the state blue with a slim 0.7 percent majority win, approximately 21,000 votes. In particular the suburban counties of Milwaukee were a driving factor for this change. The CAP Times reports that Biden managed to mobilize voters particularly in Dane and the suburban Milwaukee “WOW” counties – Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. Democrats spent a record amount here during their campaign on print and digital advertising, as well by bringing in celebrities for virtual events and concerts. And the April 4 Supreme Court election is a continuation of those efforts, as this judicial campaign has set a new spending record.
The Wisconsin State Supreme Court election pits progressive Justice Janet Protasiewicz against conservative Dan Kelly. At first glance, it may seem uncommon to have judges whose political leanings are publicly known, let alone for them to participate in an election for judicial office. Yet, this phenomenon of judges running to obtain a position on a court is not unusual in the U.S.: In 21 states, State Supreme Court justices are chosen through nonpartisan elections. The Wisconsin election, however, stands out: more than $37 million have been spent on the race in the lead up to the April 4th election, making it by far the most expensive state Supreme Court campaign in the country's history. To add onto this, politicians of both parties are hitting the virtual campaign trail hard for their preferred candidate, seemingly with much more intensity than they have for previous judgeship elections. Plus, major news media has closely followed and reported on the race that some have heralded "the most consequential election in the country this year".
To answer this, one needs to look at the makeup of the current political landscape of Wisconsin. Except for the governorship, Republicans have long held most of the levers of power in the state. They currently harbor a strong majority in the congressional delegation and are on the brink of a supermajority in both legislative chambers. And conservatives currently are in control of the State Supreme Court.
But a victory for Protasiewicz in the April 4th election could change all of this drastically. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court is made up of seven justices – four of those are currently known to hold more conservative views, while three skew more liberal. The contested seat is one presently held by a conservative leaning judge – meaning if Protasiewicz were to win, liberals would effectively constitute the majority on the Supreme Court.
A majority on the State Supreme Court, specifically in Wisconsin’s case, implies a momentous amount of power: Not only does it bring with it the ability to authorize the redrawing of state and congressional district lines, issues such as abortion access, union rights, and election laws are at stake as well. Specifically, the latter issue has thrust this election into the national spotlight. Wisconsin's importance in the general election as a "swing state" is also undeniable.
Just how much of an impact decisions made in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court can have on the entirety of the country became drastically visible in 2020, when said court was on the verge of overturning President Joe Biden's victory. Conservatives might have controlled the court for 15 years, but the winner of this election will determine the majority balance for at least the next two years, including before and immediately after the 2024 presidential campaign. And one candidate’s win could have damning implications, as Senator Larson remarks: “[….] If you know nothing else about this race, know this: Dan Kelly was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court by Republican Scott Walker. When he faced voters to retain the seat in Spring of 2020, he lost. That fall, he went on to offer legal advice to Trump's legal team. If he had been on the court, instead of correctly dismissing the case trying to stall our electoral count, Kelly would have sided with Trump and put Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes in jeopardy and further fueled the election deniers efforts to re-install Trump after he lost the Electoral College. The court has since upheld Wisconsin's gerrymandered electoral maps that give an unearned near supermajority to Republicans in the state senate and assembly. This, despite Wisconsin being a 50/50 state. The question of whether abortion still remains illegal in Wisconsin is likely to come up before this court.”
In a state that only recently turned blue again, upcoming elections such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4th, 2023, are of particular significance. How Wisconsinites decide to vote will have implications for various issues in the state and will be an indicator for what to expect from the 2024 general elections.
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