Wisconsin Democrats declared victory on Tuesday night after Milwaukee Judge Rebecca Dallet won a bitter race for a seat on the state’s Supreme Court.
Dallet’s win over Judge Michael Screnock shrunk the conservative majority on the court to one vote, after a campaign that had become the latest test of Trump-era liberal activism and political spending.
Both candidates and their supporters turned the race, which is technically nonpartisan, into a political referendum. Dallet ran early ads that accused President Trump of “attack[ing] our civil rights and our values,” while Screnock portrayed himself as a “rule of law” conservative endorsed by the National Rifle Association. By election day, more than $2.5 million had been spent on TV ads.
With 88 percent of the precincts reporting, Dallet had 56 percent of the vote and Screnock had 44 percent.
Voters also defeated a ballot measure that would have abolished the state treasurer’s office, and which was backed by Gov. Scott Walker (R).
Democrats, who had surprised Republicans in January by flipping a state Senate seat in rural northwest Wisconsin, quickly turned to the Supreme Court race. Screnock won 46.3 percent of the vote in a Feb. 20 “jungle primary,” with the rest of the vote going to Dallet and another Democrat.
The Democrat quickly worked to define Screnock, who had been appointed to the bench by Walker, as an ideological extremist who had been arrested when protesting abortion clinics.
“He has advocated on behalf of gerrymandering, rigging our maps in our state, which has been found to be unconstitutional,” said Dallet in a March debate with Screnock. “He has stood in front of women’s ability to access their lawful rights, and he’s been arrested twice for doing that.”
Screnock, who acknowledged his past as a protester, said Dallet was the real activist in the race and he could be an honest broker.
“Everything changed when I became a judge,” he said. “I am no longer an advocate for any party that comes in front of me. I am no longer an advocate for any issue that comes in front of me.”
Screnock’s defeat narrowed the court’s conservative majority to 4-3, and Democrats had not won an open Supreme Court seat election since 1995. They had been burned by a close-call defeat in 2011, when what appeared to be an election-night victory was undone by uncounted ballots from conservative Waukesha County.
But the Democrats began Tuesday cautiously optimistic about a win. Turnout, which had often been sluggish in the Democratic bases of Madison and Milwaukee, was well ahead of previous years.
“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” Walker tweeted Tuesday night. “The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.”
“Democrats have traditionally lost competitive races in the spring because their voters didn’t turn out,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. “But there’s been a year and a half of activism, getting people organized and excited before this race.”
Multiple Democratic groups tried to direct that activism into Tuesday’s race. Tom Steyer’s NextGen America ran a millennial turnout campaign; former vice president Joe Biden recorded a pro-Dallet call; and former attorney general Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee put $165,000 into digital ads.
“She strikes me as the kind of judge who will direct rationality into the system,” Holder said at a mid-March campaign stop for Dallet.
Republicans attempted to turn Dallet’s liberal support against her. State Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Republican challenging U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), called on Dallet to “apologize” to the family of a Border Patrol agent who died while Holder was attorney general. Republicans repeatedly attacked Dallet for telling donors in San Francisco that “your values are our Wisconsin values that we’ve lost along the way.”
But like many judicial races, the Wisconsin campaign frequently came down to the judges’ most controversial cases. In one ad, Dallet said Screnock “let a child predator walk without time.” In another ad, from the Screnock-backing Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Dallet was accused of giving her own light sentence to a child molester. On Tuesday, after Dallet claimed the ad was false, WMC filed a judicial ethics complaint against her.
“We believe that Wisconsin’s court is best served by justices who interpret the law as it is written, instead of legislating from the bench by imparting their personal views on court cases,” WMC President Kurt Bauer said.