The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This sleeper race could wreck MAGA’s 2024 dreams

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a 2022 rally in Wisconsin. (Morry Gash/AP)
5 min

Wisconsin looms large in the MAGA transformation of American politics. Of the three “blue wall” states that Donald Trump flipped in 2016, Wisconsin was the toughest for Democrats to take back in 2020. Winning there — more than Michigan or Pennsylvania — is the most likely starting point for Trump or another MAGA presidential candidate to assemble an electoral majority in 2024.

That’s why a race for Wisconsin state Supreme Court — Election Day is April 4 — has extraordinarily high stakes. A Democratic win would deal a big blow to the MAGA movement’s 2024 hopes, underscoring its dramatically weakened hold on must-win territory once dominated by Trump. That outcome would give liberals a 4-3 majority on a court that could thwart any rerun of Trump’s 2020 effort to overturn his loss by legal chicanery.

The conservative candidate for the court seat — Republican lawyer Daniel Kelly — has sterling MAGA credentials. He was reportedly involved in discussions about a “fake electors” scheme to overturn Trump’s loss in the state. Last year, he helped lead “election integrity” events that suggested the state’s 2020 voting was suspect.

In private polls, Kelly is trailing the liberal candidate, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, and Democrats are outspending Republicans in the race. A liberal court could overturn a state abortion ban, so Democratic ads are highlighting Kelly’s support from anti-choice groups, hoping abortion can deliver another win after driving many 2022 victories.

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But this race is also about the future prospects of MAGA — on multiple levels.

A loss for Kelly would effectively constitute a third strike for MAGA in the geographic heart of the movement’s effort to transform U.S. politics. Trump’s 2016 Rust Belt victories were driven by supercharged margins among non-college-educated White voters disproportionately concentrated in that region, which hinted at a long-term MAGA-driven realignment of the electoral map.

But since then, not only did Joe Biden win back Wisconsin (and the other “blue wall” states) in 2020, but in 2022 Democratic Gov. Tony Evers triumphed over a Trump-backed GOP candidate. While GOP Sen. Ron Johnson was reelected there in 2022, Evers’s clear majority win provided vivid evidence of MAGA’s waning influence.

A third Democratic triumph in Wisconsin would suggest the MAGA transformation is proving far less durable than its proponents hoped. Wisconsin has a slightly higher percentage of blue-collar White people than either Pennsylvania or Michigan, so another win would be a big morale booster for Democrats heading into 2024.

“The whole Trump-MAGA strategy is to run up the score with rural voters and White voters without college degrees,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler told me. “That describes most voters in Wisconsin.” What’s more, Wikler added, “MAGA can’t win in 2024 without the Badger State.”

MAGA partisans grasp these stakes with perfect clarity. One well-known Trumpist operative has been frantically warning that a liberal majority on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court would spell doom for “election integrity.” That’s MAGA code for saying it would complicate efforts to illicitly subvert a MAGA loss in 2024. And it’s true: If liberals control the court, that will be largely out of reach.

To be fair, one of the court’s current conservative justices did not side with Trump’s efforts to overturn results in 2020, notes election law expert Richard L. Hasen. So even a one-seat conservative majority might not do its worst. But if 2024 comes down to Wisconsin, the pressure would be intense to greenlight dubious efforts to overturn a loss, and a conservative majority joined by Kelly would be “much more risky,” Hasen said.

“A liberal court would make it much less likely that lawsuits meant to disenfranchise voters or subvert election results would get a serious hearing,” Hasen told me.

To the surprise of many observers, Democrats won in 2022 by running as defenders of both abortion rights and democracy, enabling them to defeat election-denying candidates across the country. That combination proved to be Kryptonite to MAGA among swing voters, including in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In addition to running ads on abortion, Democrats in Wisconsin are also putting big money behind a spot that is entirely about the threat to democracy posed by conservative domination of the state Supreme Court. A win there would once again show the potency of that joint message — against MAGA candidates in particular.

Yet even if Democrats prevail, it would be folly to be overly confident that MAGA’s efforts to realign the region are fully extinguished. As Ronald Brownstein notes for the Atlantic, Democratic performance among non-college White people in 2020 and 2022 improved only marginally relative to 2016, so relying on educated voters alone won’t keep the “blue wall” states in the Democratic column.

But when it comes to MAGA’s dreams of retaking the Rust Belt in 2024 — or even of stealing the election in Wisconsin if the GOP candidate can’t win fairly — a Democratic victory in April would make those hopes a whole lot dimmer.