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What the Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Tells Us About 2024
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What the Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Tells Us About 2024

Plus: A progressive wins in Chicago.

Wisconsin voters cast their ballots on November 8, 2022, in Madison. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! Donald Trump may be the first American president to be indicted. But he isn’t the first to be arrested. “Ulysses S. Grant, who had an eye for spirited horses and an apparent yen to test their mettle, was arrested in 1872 for speeding on a street in Washington, where he had been driving a two-horse carriage,” according to the New York Times. “The Grant episode apparently wasn’t reported in the press at the time, but it came to light in 1908 when The Sunday Star of Washington published an interview with the then-retired officer who pulled the 18th president of the United States over.”

Up to Speed

  • Days after being indicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records by a New York grand jury, Donald Trump appeared in Manhattan court Tuesday to enter his not guilty plea. After traveling back to Mar-a-Lago, the former president on Tuesday night gave a defiant speech to a crowd of supporters that included former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, and MyPillow CEO and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. “These radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen.”
  • Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada announced Monday morning she will run for reelection in 2024. A Republican insider in the Silver State tells The Dispatch the party is still searching for a consensus top-tier recruit to challenge the first-term incumbent. 
  • West Virginia’s three-term Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, announced Tuesday he will run for governor in 2024. “I’m the only proven conservative in this race,” Morrisey said at his launch event in Harpers Ferry. “I have delivered on big projects and I know how to drain the swamp.” Morrisey had reportedly been evaluating whether to enter the governor’s race or to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin, as he did unsuccessfully in 2018. Reports that Republican Gov. Jim Justice intends to run against Manchin likely motivated Morrisey to look at the governor’s mansion instead.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Ukraine this week. Pompeo broke with his old boss Donald Trump, arguing in a Twitter thread Tuesday that helping Kyiv should be a priority. “Supporting Ukraine isn’t about abstract ideals like ‘global democracy’: it’s about strengthening OUR national and economic security,” wrote Pompeo. “If Putin wins, he’ll control critical exports to the U.S. And he’ll be on the brink of a broader war in Europe.” Pompeo is mulling a 2024 bid for president.
  • Roy McGrath, a 53-year-old former aide to former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wanted by federal authorities on corruption charges, died in Tennessee Monday after a confrontation with the FBI. McGrath, who had been indicted in 2021 on charges of fraud and embezzlement, became a fugitive last month after he failed to appear in court to begin his trial. The FBI said it was reviewing the circumstances of McGrath’s death, about which few public details have been released.
  • North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham announced she was changing her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican Wednesday morning, a sudden mid-session flip that gives state Republicans a supermajority to overcome vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Liberal Candidate Prevails in Crucial Wisconsin Court Contest

The Republican Party under the titular leadership of former President Donald Trump continues to falter at the ballot box—this time in an election that handed liberals a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

With Trump dominating national headlines Tuesday while being arraigned in New York, Democratic Party-aligned Janet Protasiewcz quietly romped to victory in Wisconsin, a 2024 battleground, in the technically nonpartisan race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Protasiewcz defeated the GOP-aligned Dan Kelly 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent. Republicans blamed several factors: a moribund state party and lack of resources; Kelly’s flaws as a candidate; and swing voters motivated to preserve abortion rights. 

Indeed, abortion mattered in the Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin. But it was Trump who loomed over the race, as he did over midterm elections five months ago. The latter campaign finished with Democrats defending their hold on governor’s mansions in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, growing their majority in the U.S. Senate and only narrowly losing control of the House of Representatives. And all of this happened under the specter of deep anxiety about the economy, rising crime and dissatisfaction withPresident Joe Biden. 

Republican insiders emphasize that the Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign ran with a standard bearer—Kelly—who was too focused on the past and ignored swing voters in a 50/50 state where they reign supreme. “We had a candidate only courting the GOP base,” a party operative with Wisconsin ties said. “This should be a wakeup call to Wisconsin Republicans. They need to stop running the next election like it’s the past one.” 

Republicans who followed the race say Kelly pursued a strategy of juicing base turnout and rarely appealed to independent voters or soft-partisans. During the campaign’s final week, he “visited Republican offices around the state and rarely ventured into a room where the reaction wouldn’t be overwhelmingly positive,” one GOP strategist said. “Rather than engage undecided voters and persuade them, Kelly opted to play it safe and try to win by maximizing reliable GOP turnout.”

And just as the 45th president refused to concede to Biden in 2020, Kelly refused to offer a traditional, congratulatory concession to Protasiewicz Tuesday evening. “I wish that in a circumstance like this I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent. But I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.” Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, who did mention abortion in his victory statement, also cast the court contest in broad, national terms that went beyond the polarizing culture issue, declaring the outcome “a testament to the whirlwind that the foes of democracy—in Wisconsin, and in America—can expect to reap.”  

All of this has a familiar ring to it. 

Predictions about a red wave in last year’s midterm elections didn’t materialize—even after Republican backlash to the FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida residence. Republicans made similar predictions after a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump last week.

“About two weeks ago, I predicted that this will be the biggest backfire in American political history. It is,” tweeted Republican Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor and president of the Young America’s Foundation. But what just happened in the Badger State suggests otherwise.

And now Wisconsin, a state upon which Trump built his surprise victory in 2016 but that swung to Biden four years later, and it looks like a potential minefield for Republicans heading into 2024. 

Overshadowed by the Republican loss in the court race was a state Senate contest in the suburban Milwaukee “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington in which the GOP prevailed—but by a razor-thin margin that signals Democrats are gaining ground in what has been a Republican stronghold. This appears to be yet more evidence the swing voters there remain extremely receptive to pro-choice campaign messaging in the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, eliminating federal protections for abortion rights.

Protasiewicz campaigned heavily on access to abortion, telling voters in campaign ads that she “believes in women’s freedom to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion.” Her victory means that the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s new liberal majority will be able to challenge the state’s near-total abortion ban, passed in 1849, which is expected to make its way up to the state’s highest court on appeal in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, the new 4-3 liberal majority is expected to reconsider the state’s current legislative map, which Protasiewicz had called “rigged.” Republicans control six of Wisconsin’s eight U.S. House districts and, as of last night, a supermajority in the state Senate. But aside from the effect of the new makeup of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in-state, that voters delivered it bodes well for Democrats running for reelection in high-profile contests next year, including Biden and incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

The question is whether Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere will learn from last night’s loss and make the necessary adjustments. 

“The Democratic campaign was big, coordinated, disciplined, and relentless,” said one D.C.-based Republican strategist. “Candidates, cash, and campaigns matter. We had a weak candidate and a bad campaign and not nearly enough cash.”

The Progressive Edges the Centrist in Chicago 

In two recent blue-city elections—New York City’s mayoral contest in 2021 and San Francisco’s recall election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022—Democratic voters rejected a “progressive policing” candidate in favor of a Democrat who pledged to rein in rising crime. But that trend only goes so far. The progressive contender knocked out a centrist outsider in last year’s homelessness-focused Los Angeles mayoral race, and a similar thing happened in Tuesday night’s mayoral runoff election in Chicago: Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and former teachers union organizer, defeated a crime-focused center-left candidate in Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

“The people have always worked for Chicago,” Johnson told his supporters minutes after his victory was projected at around 10 p.m. local time. “Whether you wake up early to open the doors of your business, or teach middle school, or wear a badge to protect our streets, or nurse people in need, or provide childcare services, you have always worked for this city. And now Chicago will begin to work for its people.”

Across town, Vallas was taking the stage to break the bad news to his own backers. When some booed at his calling Johnson “the next mayor of Chicago,” Vallas pushed back: “Please, it’s critically important—I mean, this campaign that I ran to bring the city together would not be a campaign that fulfilled my ambitions if this election is going to divide us more.”

As of early Wednesday morning, with 91 percent of the vote tabulated, Johnson led Vallas 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent, a margin of about 16,000 votes. Election experts expected outstanding mail-in votes to favor Johnson.

When incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to advance to the top-two runoff election in the city’s nonpartisan jungle primary last month, the stage was set for a faceoff between two Democrats with starkly different approaches to crime, taxes, and education.

Throughout the runoff, Vallas, who was endorsed by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, tried to portray Johnson as soft on crime and insufficiently supportive of law enforcement. Meanwhile, Johnson distanced himself from his years-old comments in support of the “defund the police” movement, pivoting away from a position of cutting police budgets to support social services and toward a “just pay for everything” approach. In his victory speech, Johnson promised to work toward “a city that’s truly safer for everyone by investing in what actually works to prevent crime. And that means youth employment, mental health centers, and ensuring that law enforcement has the resources to solve and prevent crime.”

Johnson also enjoyed major support from labor unions around the city. The powerful Chicago Teachers Union in particular went all-in on his candidacy as a favored son: They spent millions supporting him, even hiking members’ monthly dues for the express purpose of pouring more cash into the fight against Vallas, whom they described as “an existential threat to public education in Chicago.” In his work managing public schools in Chicago and other cities, Vallas frequently drew the ire of teachers’ unions, including by expanding access to charter schools in several places.

More than any specific policy difference, Johnson spent the closing weeks of the campaign accusing Vallas of not being a true Democrat at all. His campaign pointed to Vallas’ willingness to appear on right-leaning podcasts and radio shows, the fact that some of his donors had also given to Donald Trump, and a 2009 clip in which he described himself as “personally pro-life” and said that “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat now.” Some Johnson supporters even put up yard signs in recent days with Vallas’ name next to a MAGA 2024 logo. Vallas worked hard to blunt the attack, campaigning with high-profile endorsers like Sen. Dick Durbin, who testified to his sincerity as a “lifelong Democrat.” 

Eyes on the Trail

  • DeSantis to Michigan: While the indictment of former President Donald Trump dominates political coverage, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, continues movement toward an expected White House bid. Next stop on the schedule for DeSantis is Michigan, a key Midwestern battleground. Per an invitation viewed by The Dispatch, the governor is set to be in the state Thursday to headline a Midland County GOP fundraising breakfast. The event is to include a VIP reception and photos.
  • Should Tester brace for a jungle primary? Montana Republicans are moving to upend Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s bid for a fourth term by changing the rules for his reelection bid, the Independent Record reports. Republicans lawmakers there are poised to pass legislation turning the state’s 2024 nominating contest for Senate—and no other races—into a “jungle primary” that would advance the top two finishers to the general election regardless of party affiliation, after which the law would immediately sunset. The proposal is an attempt to keep Libertarian and other third-party candidates off the general election ballot, a development that could make the hard-to-beat Tester an easier mark for the Republican nominee. “This is just brazen partisanship,” Montana Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, a Democrat, said. 
  • Biden lies low: President Joe Biden is reportedly considering waiting until the summer—or perhaps even the fall—to announce his reelection bid, Axios’ Alex Thompson reports. “Biden and his inner circle don’t see drawbacks to the president taking his time—he doesn’t have a significant primary challenge, so for a while he can stay above the campaign fray and focus on governing,” Thompson writes. “Biden advisers also believe that waiting has a potential upside: It allows him to contrast his leadership from the Oval Office with the chaos in the Republican Party, and the drama surrounding former President Trump’s indictment.”

Notable and Quotable

“This is not something that is a focus for him … He will catch part of the news when he has a moment to catch up on the news of the day, but this is not his focus for today.” 

—White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre describing President Biden’s reaction to Donald Trump’s arraignment, April 4, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.