The Next Crucial Election

I know. You wish you lived in Georgia so that you could be enjoying another three weeks of nonstop political ads. 

But don’t despair. Another election is just around the corner and you can be sure that you will receive breathless emails and mailers telling you that this will be the most consequential election of our lifetimes. 

That next most consequential election of our lifetimes (well, at least here in Wisconsin) will be the race for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Conservative Justice Patience Roggensack is retiring and that puts the conservative 4-3 majority in peril. If the liberals can pick up this seat they will flip the majority. 

This has consequences for all kinds of things, especially with continued split government between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and a solidly Republican Legislature. But that solid GOP majority owes its status, in large part, to what some have described as the most effectively gerrymandered district maps in the nation and this leads us back to the Court. 

Earlier this year the Court ruled that it would stick to maps as closely aligned as possible with those heavily gerrymandered by Republicans after the 2010 census. That all but guaranteed another decade of Republican control of the Legislature. But if liberals take control it’s likely that progressive groups will find a way to get back before the Court and reopen the question. In response, the Court could very well adopt new maps for 2024 that would give Democrats a more even playing field. 

Now, to be sure, it still would not be easy for Democrats to gain a majority even under the best case scenario. Evers’ People’s Maps Commission demonstrated that pretty clearly. Under their proposal, Republicans were projected to still enjoy a 55-44 edge in the Assembly. Not as favorable as the 64-35 majority they will have in January, but still pretty comfortable. The reason is that, while we’re an evenly split state and while Democrats win a lot of statewide offices, it’s almost impossible to draw enough politically competitive Legislative districts simply because Democrats cluster so intensely in urban areas. 

In any event, needing six seats to pick up a majority in the lower house is better than needing 15. Fairer maps at least put the Democrats within shouting distance of a majority in a blow out year for the blue team, which, who knows, 2024 just might be after their impressive showing this year. 

So, yeah, I hate to repeat the cliche, but in fact this April’s election could be among the most consequential ever for Wisconsinites. 

It appears that there will be a primary in February. Former conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, who was knocked off unexpectedly in 2020 by Justice Jill Karofsky, has announced he’s running again. Right now he’s the only announced candidate from the conservative side, though Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow, who just finished presiding over the case of the man convicted of last year’s Waukesha holiday parade killings, is said to be considering a run

Competing for the liberal place on the April ballot will be Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell. This has all the makings of a very competitive race. The ideal scenario for Democrats is that Protasiewicz and Mitchell make it through the primary. In that case, it won’t matter which one wins in April. 

Janet Protasiewicz probably offers liberals their best shot at taking back the Court.

But what’s more likely is that Kelly will face one of those two and, so, which of them makes it through the primary is crucial. The only question for practically-minded Democrats will be which is more electable. So who shows up to vote in February? The voters who nominated moderate Gov. Tony Evers in 2018, who won reelection this year, or the ones who nominated defeated Senate candidate Mandela Barnes? Will progressives who voted for Barnes feel burned by his loss and return to a more electable candidate who isn’t quite as exciting? It’s pretty clear to me that Protasiewicz offers liberals the best chance of taking back the Court.

Heavy hitters are starting to line up. Former Gov. Jim Doyle and former Justice Louis Butler have endorsed Mitchell while former Dane County Executive and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk has thrown her support behind Protasiewicz. That’s significant because Mitchell is from Dane County. Protasiewicz has also picked up the endorsement of Justice Rebecca Dallett.

And, oh yeah, I should mention that this is technically a nonpartisan election, though that will be hard to remember. Democrats and all of their affiliated interest groups will heavily back either Mitchell or Protasiewicz while the whole Republican apparatus will be in full force behind Kelly or another conservative should one get in the race. 

What are the chances for a liberal takeover? I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s 50-50. While Democrats did surprisingly well nationally in the midterms, Wisconsin was a mixed bag at best. Evers won a comfortable victory as did Attorney General Josh Kaul, but Secretary of State Doug La Follette only eked out a win and State Treasurer candidate Aaron Richardson lost. Democrats also lost seats in both houses of the Legislature and they lost the Third Congressional District, a district they had held for over two decades and under a map drawn by Evers. (Evers’ maps prevailed for Congressional districts while Republican maps came out on top for the Legislature.) And, of course, Barnes lost narrowly to Sen. Ron Johnson, but RoJo had once been thought to be the most vulnerable Senate Republican. 

On the other hand, abortion turned out to be a more potent issue than it appeared it might be going into the midterms and the state Supreme Court could have a lot to say about whether Wisconsin’s restrictive 1849 statute remains in effect. If the election turns on that issue you would have to favor the liberal candidate. 

No matter how you look at it, this will be the most consequential election of my lifetime. Until the next one. So, if you’re missing all those political ads, just wait a month or two. They’ll be back in force. 

A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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