The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race is just the latest win for Democrats in this presidential swing state

Wisconsin voters stand in line to vote on April 7. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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In a bellwether state in the 2020 presidential election, not much has gone right for Republicans in the last few years. In fact, since President Trump won Wisconsin in a surprise that arguably won him the White House, Democrats have dominated elections in that state.

The most recent and perhaps most impressive win came Monday, when results were released in a competitive state Supreme Court race that surprised even national Democrats: Liberal challenger Jill Karofsky threw out Daniel Kelly, a Trump-endorsed conservative judge running for reelection. And she won by a significant margin of 11 points, report The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and David Weigel.

Karofsky’s win came despite significant hurdles. A sitting state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin hasn’t lost reelection in a dozen years, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And Wisconsin Republicans played a key role in allowing that state’s primary to go forward last week with in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic. Democrats credibly accused Republicans of wanting low turnout so Kelly would win and keep his seat.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court quickly blocked Gov. Tony Evers (D) bid to suspend in-person voting until June 2020. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democrats won that race anyway, and now have a chance to stop a purge of voter rolls before the 2020 election, which they fear will make Democratic-leaning, lower-propensity voters less likely to vote in the November election.

But this election-year win for Democrats was just the latest victory for them in Wisconsin in the Trump era.

In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats won the ultimate prize by unseating Republican Gov. Scott Walker. They also unseated the Republican lieutenant governor and the Republican attorney general, a sweep of competitive statewide elections.

They won the open state treasurer race, kept the secretary of state position and easily kept Tammy Baldwin in the U.S. Senate. They won another state Supreme Court seat, which means in two years, they’ve picked up two seats on this all-important court for voting-rights issues. (Although conservatives so dominated the court that even with those wins, the court still leans conservative 4-3.)

Even before the midterm election, Democrats were showing off their strength in this state. In January 2018, they won a special election for a state Senate seat by nine percentage points — despite the fact that a Republican had held it since 2000.

That’s not to say every election since Trump won has gone well for Wisconsin Democrats. They won another special election for a state Senate seat in 2018, only to lose it several months later. And a liberal candidate for yet another Wisconsin Supreme Court seat narrowly lost in 2019. That means even with Monday’s win,liberals fall short of a majority on that court and don’t have another chance to flip it until 2023, when the next 10-year term is up.

In the 2018 election, Democrats were unable to take House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s congressional seat (but that was always a long shot for them). They picked up only one state legislative seat, but Wisconsin also has some of the most gerrymandered state legislative and congressional districts in the nation, with electoral lines drawn to protect Republicans even in a Democratic surge. Democrats are in such a deficit in Wisconsin’s state legislature that they won’t control the map-drawing process in 2021 — although having Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in office gives them at least one seat at the table.

But overall, in a state that could determine who wins the White House in 2020, Democrats have shown a consistent pattern of winning — so much so that in the case of this Supreme Court win, it has surprised even them sometimes.

Democrats also have done well in two other major presidential swing states — Michigan and Pennsylvania — which Trump narrowly won in 2016 and probably will be key to his reelection hopes.

In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats picked up the governor’s seat in Michigan. (That’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a potential vice presidential pick for Joe Biden and someone Trump has been attacking over the coronavirus.) Michigan Democrats also swept state executive races and picked up two congressional seats.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats flipped three congressional seats (in part because of a redistricting case gone their way), easily kept the governor’s mansion, and picked up five state Senate seats and 11 state House seats.

Things have gone so well for Democrats in Michigan and Pennsylvania that in both states, they have a chance in a good election year to pick up the majority in the state houses, said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for liberal political blog Daily Kos and a state elections expert. Both seemed a long shot after the 2016 election.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic provides a massive question mark for both parties. If the virus is still raging in November, will states be able to set up mail-in voting in time, or will voters have to crowd into polling sites to cast ballots? The conventional wisdom, as expressed by Trump himself, is that mail-in voting expands the voter pool and helps Democrats. So if Wisconsin Republicans were trying to provide a framework for how their party could successfully have an election during the pandemic, well, it failed.

“I think it indicates to Republicans that their use of the coronavirus as voter suppression tactic does have the potential to backfire,” Fiddler said.

And it makes Democrats that much more confident going into the November presidential election.