Scott Walker’s fight with his state’s judiciary over his efforts to avoid two state legislative special elections—which he has now abandoned—hasn’t been the only Wisconsin news involving judges or elections. On Tuesday, April 3 voters will decide a contest for a position on the state’s Supreme Court, and it looks to be an unlikely barnburner.
It’s actually a regular, not a special, election, despite its isolated timing; the state’s judicial elections have their own timetable. It’s also not technically a partisan battle; it’s officially a nonpartisan race in this hyperpartisan state. And the outcome won’t even fundamentally change the ideological balance on the Supreme Court: a win by center-left circuit court judge and former prosecutor Rebecca Dallet over conservative activist turned lawyer and judge Michael Screnock would simply reduce the court’s conservative majority from 5–2 to 4–3.
But this is Wisconsin, ground zero for partisan polarization, so even this election is a cage match. It was set up by a primary contest on February 20 that mostly served to eliminate a third, more liberal candidate (Tim Burns). At stake is a ten-year term on the court; the current occupant, conservative Michael Gableman, declined to run for another term. Dallet’s campaign is viewed by her supporters as a waystation to a possible liberal majority on the court after the 2020 elections. They are playing chess, not checkers.
It’s hard to say which candidate has the advantage. Republicans have been over-performing in Wisconsin in recent years, as reflected in Walker’s serial wins and the upsets pulled in 2016 by Senator Ron Johnson and (of course) Donald Trump. But anti-Trump sentiment and Democratic enthusiasm could tilt the balance back towards Dallet.
Turnout in recent Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin has averaged an abysmal 7.3 percent. So Tuesday’s contest is above all a statewide tune-up for the voter mobilization efforts both parties intend to deploy in November, when both Walker and Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin will be on the ballot. It’s a big deal for the court itself and for the lawyers and interest groups with business before it. But for political people, it’s just another skirmish in one of America’s most intense partisan wars.
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