A Change of Direction in Wisconsin?

Supreme Court Contest Reveals a Restless Electorate

Editor’s note: President Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin on Election night 2016 was one of several surprises that propelled him to an Electoral College majority and the presidency. The results this week of a contest to fill an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court suggest that 15 months into Trump’s term, voters may be ready to go in a different direction. Bill Lueders, a longtime student of Wisconsin politics and managing editor of The Progressive filed this post analyzing the outcome. A longer version first appeared on Isthmus.com.

Jay Heck knew something was up Tuesday afternoon when he headed for his polling place on Madison’s east side. There, the longtime executive director of Common Cause saw something quite rare for a spring election — a line. He was told he was the 1,000th person to vote there that day.

“I got a chocolate chip cookie for being the 1,000th voter,” Heck says.

Rebecca Dallet, the liberal-leaning Milwaukee County judge running for a 10-year term on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, got something even better. She won the race, besting conservative Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock with 56 percent of the vote.

Dallet’s election will alter the court’s ideological balance, leaving conservatives with just a 4-3 edge instead of a 5-2 domination. Also on Tuesday, voters soundly rejected a constitutional amendment favored by conservatives to eliminate the watchdog office of state treasurer.

“There was just great motivation on the part of people who were not comfortable with the status quo,” Heck reflects. “It demonstrates a strong pull in the direction that Wisconsin could be headed in the fall election.”

Dallet, who championed her determination to stand up for Wisconsin values, including those being “attacked” by President Donald Trump, said something similar to her supporters in Milwaukee Tuesday night: “People are engaged, they are hungry for change.”

About 1 million voters cast ballots, the most for a spring election since 2000, with the exception of 2011 when 1.5 million people turned out for a sharply contested Supreme Court election in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s full-frontal attack on public employee unions. In that race, the conservative candidate narrowly prevailed.

Screnock was appointed to the Sauk County bench in 2015 by Walker, after defending the governor’s anti-union law against legal challenge, as well as helping defend the drawing of voter boundaries to favor Republicans. His campaign was run by GOP political operatives and fully 40 percent of the money he raised for his own campaign in the officially nonpartisan race came from the state Republican Party. He was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and backed bigly by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which reportedly spent at least $1.3 million on ads painting Dallet as someone who goes the extra mile to protect child rapists.

Screnock ended up raising just over $1 million for his own campaign, including $417,846 from the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In all, he received $434,415 from political action committees; prior to a 2015 change in state law pushed through by Republicans, the maximum total a candidate for state Supreme Court could receive from PACs was $140,156.

Dallet raised more than $1.1 million; of this amount, $128,245 came from committees, including just $4,265 from the Democratic National Committee. She also received help from outside groups, including a group affiliated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which reportedly spent more than $500,000 on Dallet’s behalf.

Heck says Tuesday’s result is consistent with January’s special election victory by Democrat Peggy Schachtner in a district that had previously leaned Republican. He believes it was also foreshadowed by the decision last week by Walker and GOP legislative leaders to stop fighting to block special elections in two other legislative districts.

“I think they realized that that would not go over well with the voting population,” Heck says, “and Walker wisely just said ‘I’ve got to bite the bullet.’” He thinks the special elections, now planned for June, will be highly competitive and that voters’ enhanced motivation will probably last into the fall, when Walker himself faces re-election.