What Will WI High Court Race Tell Us About November?

The last time a Wisconsin Supreme Court race drew national media attention was 2011. That was in the heat of the battle over Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 public union reforms. The Left decided to make incumbent Justice David Prosser a surrogate for Walker on the ballot. Prosser narrowly defeated JoAnne Kloppenburg, 50.2% to 49.8%. National observers used the race to gauge how politically damaged Walker was from Act 10. This year, national watchers likely will use Wisconsin’s Supreme Court to determine whether a state that was a surprise win for President Donald Trump in 2016 will experience a “blue wave” in 2018. Buzzfeed already has made the case that the race between conservative Michael Screnock and liberal Rebecca Dallet is worthy of national attention:

It’s one of those races, like the Pennsylvania special election earlier this month, that Republicans would have won handily in most other years: Over the past decade, conservatives have turned the tide in Wisconsin solidly in their favor, and they do even better in judicial elections, in which conservatives voters are motivated to come to the polls by issues like abortion and religious freedom.

But it’s not any other year, and what may seem like an obscure election is one of the first statewide contests in a battleground state, potentially offering real insight into whether Trump’s jagged popularity will affect turnout and persuasion in rural and suburban areas.

Progressives are hoping this election will signal that, just as they did in Virginia and Pennsylvania, Democratic voters are hungry to turn out in places like Wisconsin, where the party has a chance to unseat an old foe, Gov. Scott Walker, and is trying to hold onto a tough Senate seat occupied by the vulnerable Tammy Baldwin.

But one seasoned observer doesn’t believe April 3rd will tell us much about November. Republican strategist Mark Graul has a reputation for spring election success. Graul doesn’t believe Tuesday’s results will be a reliable barometer of autumn election prospects. He points to history to make his case:

Whatever the result is next week, no one should read anything into what it means for November.  Spring elections are much different animals in Wisconsin with an electorate that will be about 40% of who shows up in the fall.  Before anyone goes overboard with their breathless analysis, they should look at how conservatives Annette Ziegler and Mike Gableman won handily in 2007 and 2008 sandwiched between two landslide elections for Democrats.


And, liberal Ann Walsh Bradley won easily in 2015 just after the GOP romp of 2014 and leading toward the Trump election in 2016.  This election will be won or lost based on the individual candidates and their respective campaigns.  That’s always how it has worked in Wisconsin in April.  To say otherwise completely ignores history.

Media Trackers asked Graul if he thought a Dallet win fueled by unusually high turnout might be an indicator of liberal enthusiasm that Democrats could ride to November: “It would have to get to a turnout of 1.5 million to make me change my mind.  I’d be shocked if it even gets to a million.” Graul’s 1.5 million benchmark likely isn’t arbitrary.

Prosser defeated Kloppenburg 752,694 to 745,690 in 2011,  a combined total of 1,498,384. In 2016, more than 1.9 million people voted in the supreme court race, a record. But that turnout was fueled by a presidential primary. Justice Rebecca Bradley defeated Kloppenburg in that race.

If Dallet wins, it’s likely the national media will add the result to a string of Democratic victories in Virginia, Wisconsin(in January) and Pennsylvania that appears to indicate serious trouble for Republicans in November. But without the unusually high turnout Graul points to, it will be difficult to credibly add a Dallet win to the string of Democratic wins. Conversely, a Screnock win won’t be cause for a Republican sigh of relief either, as far as November is concerned.

But a conservative defeat in a Wisconsin Supreme Court case would be notable after a decade-long string of victories that has produced a 5-2 conservative advantage on the court. If such a defeat happens, only time will tell if it means anything beyond a closing of the ideological gap on the court.