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Opinion What the big upset in Wisconsin says about beating Trump

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Democrats won a big upset victory in the state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin on Monday, after Republicans successfully blocked an expansion of vote-by-mail, forcing untold numbers of voters to choose between protecting their lives and exercising their right to the franchise.

Which raises two questions: To what degree was this responsible for provoking a voter backlash that fueled the Democratic victory? And what does that tell us about coming Democratic efforts to defeat President Trump in Wisconsin this fall?

In an interview, Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair of Wisconsin, said that organizers encountered evidence of such a backlash to an extraordinary degree, and that it unquestionably played a role in the outcome.

“People who requested absentee ballots in those final days and returned them up until poll closing time on election day were motivated in part by outrage at Republicans,” Wikler told me.

This came right after the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans to overturn the Democratic governor’s effort to postpone the election. It also came after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Republicans and overturned an extension of vote-by-mail deadlines to cope with surging demand, forcing untold numbers to don masks and go to crowded polling places to cast a ballot.

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Wisconsin has no-excuse-needed absentee balloting. But Democrats pushed for an all-mail voting system, in which ballots are automatically mailed to all eligible voters. Republicans rebuffed these efforts — and then blocked those last minute fixes, too.

Wikler said all this came up in a “huge number of conversations” with voters, and that it was a “significant motivator.”

“Engagement with our social media went off the charts, and the topic dominated our conversations with voters about the race,” Wikler continued. “They were mad that Republicans were trying to weaponize coronavirus to steal an election.”

The victorious candidate, Jill Karofsky, prevailed over the conservative incumbent by more than 120,000 votes, or 55 percent to 45 percent, even though Trump repeatedly urged Republicans to the polls.

In many ways, this was a dry run for the 2020 presidential election.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

If Trump loses Wisconsin this time, he’ll all but certainly lose reelection. But if Trump wins there, he might still win the electoral college even if he loses Pennsylvania and Michigan, the two other “blue wall” states he cracked, provided Joe Biden doesn’t win, say, Arizona to offset losing Wisconsin.

Given the incredibly tight margin of Trump’s victory last time, the war for Wisconsin will be brutally hard fought. Republicans will pull out every last tactic they can employ to curb Democratic voting.

Republicans plainly saw their refusal to make it easier for people to vote by mail safely as central to winning. As Trump himself put it, if Democrats succeed in their broader goal of securing universal vote by mail, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

The question now is whether this surprise upset will shift Republicans’ calculus. If the pandemic is still with us this fall — or if there’s a subsidence followed by a second wave — will Republicans once again refuse to support measures to make it easier to vote safely?

If they do, Wikler told me, Democrats will once again use it as a rallying point. Democrats will continue arguing for an all vote-by-mail system for at least the 2020 elections — the presidential contest included — especially if the coronavirus remains a severe threat.

“The question is whether Republicans will recognize that their breathtakingly cynical gambit not only endangered voters but backfired politically,” Wikler said.

“We’ll be pushing in every possible way to make this election safe for everyone,” Wikler added. “At the same time, we’ll be organizing everyone who’s ready to vote against Trump to request an absentee ballot for the next six and a half months.”

A turnout surge among Democratic voters does appear to have helped Karofsky win. She outperformed Hillary Clinton in the red counties surrounding Milwaukee, but also in numerous rural ones across the state. Karofsky also outperformed in the southwest corner, flipping several counties from red to blue.

As such, Karofsky’s map in Wisconsin was far more akin to the one that got Tammy Baldwin reelected to the Senate in 2018 than to Clinton’s map in 2016, Wikler pointed out.

On the other hand, with Trump on the ballot in a presidential race, he may drive far larger turnout and vote share in many of those rural counties. The total number of votes may be twice as high, so all bets are off.

“The right mentality is to assume we’re two points behind, and have a shot at winning if we do absolutely everything that’s in our power to do,” Wikler acknowledged.

The question is whether the Republican posture on vote-by-mail will allow a Democratic repeat this fall.

Republicans probably will not change their stance, since they may calculate (as Trump admitted) that making voting by mail easier will doom their chances. But we now see there may be a big risk for them in sticking with this posture, too.

Read more:

George T. Conway III and David Lat: Don’t like the Wisconsin election mess? Don’t blame the courts.

Ruth Marcus: Wisconsin’s debacle may be the most infuriating of the coronavirus failures

The Post’s View: Wisconsin Republican leaders put voters in an impossible position

Jennifer Rubin: Wisconsin shows the fragility of democracy

Stephen Stromberg: Wisconsin Republicans are exploiting the pandemic to grab power. It’s a dangerous precedent.

David Byler: The Wisconsin election was a mess. But there’s one element of it worth emulating.