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6 Takeaways from Wisconsin's 2023 Spring Election Primary
The stakes are high in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, if you hadn't heard.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
A few things before we get to the column…
First, I will be hosting an episode of WTMJ Nights on 620 WTMJ on Thursday, Feb. 23, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
We have a terrific group of guests lined up, including Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, to talk about his “State of the County” address (live in studio!), Corri Hess of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to talk about the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, and Eric Nehm of The Athletic to talk about our beloved Milwaukee Bucks.
Be sure to tune in live or access the show as a podcast here.
That’s one of many appearances on the airwaves for us this week. I joined Fox 6’s Jason Calvi on Wednesday to talk about the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, and you can watch that segment here.
I joined Kristin Brey on As Goes Wisconsin both as part of Civic Media’s primary night live coverage, and on Wednesday to talk about the public funding proposal for the Milwaukee Brewers. You can listen to that here.
I also joined Patti Vasquez for her daily show at WCPT 820 and Heartland Signal for our weekly chat on Wisconsin politics, and joined Edwin Eisendrath’s “The Big Picture” on Saturday afternoon for his weekly show on the same network.
And with that, it’s on to the column…
Well, there’s room for a quick plug. Do consider subscribing.
OK, onto the column…
While there were many races up and down the ballot in Tuesday’s Spring Election Primary, there was only one statewide race. That is, of course, the massively important race for Wisconsin Supreme Court that will determine its ideological majority. It is, in many ways, the most important election happening anywhere in the country in 2023.
Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative, is retiring at the end of her 10-year term, leaving three conservatives and three liberals on the seven-member Court. That means it will be up to the people of Wisconsin to decide whether or not it will remain a conservative majority or if change will come to the state’s highest court.
This is a tremendously important race for a variety of reasons, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules on so many key policy issues and on so many foundational aspects of government in Wisconsin, including the state’s legislative maps, which many consider to be the nation’s most gerrymandered, and are at the core of why Wisconsin’s politics have become so deeply broken. Flipping the majority on this court would offer a real reset moment for Wisconsin’s politics and could perhaps bring real checks and balances to a Republican-controlled state legislature that has been reckless, out-of-touch, and unaccountable to voters on issues from abortion rights to gun violence prevention to health care to public health to education to criminal justice to voting rights to the very voice of the people in the validity of their votes.
So yes, it’s a pretty big deal. Let’s get into the results from Tuesday’s primary. Let’s recombobulate.
1. Janet Protasiewicz delivered an impressive primary victory
Janet Protasiewicz received more votes than Daniel Kelly and Jennifer Dorow combined in Wisconsin’s Spring Election primary.
The primary night victory for the Milwaukee County judge was undeniably impressive. She gained more than 445,000 votes, good for more than 46% of the total, more than 20% ahead of any other candidate running. She was the top vote-getter in 45 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and she won 50% of the vote or more in 17 counties, including many top population centers and key swing regions.
She did particularly well for a left-leaning candidate in the southern and southwestern part of the state, where many areas have swung either way in recent election cycles. That includes several of the famed Obama-Trump counties like Sauk (52% for Protasiewicz), Richland (52%), Crawford (52%) and Vernon (51%) counties. She actually won a higher percentage of votes in Iowa (62%), Bayfield (61%), Ashland (57%), Eau Claire (57%), and La Crosse (56%) counties than in the typical Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee County (55%).
The Protasiewicz campaign also had real success consolidating support on the left in this race. Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell got just 7.5% of the statewide vote, about 14% in Milwaukee County, and just over 14% in his home county. Mitchell is a fascinating candidate and I hope we hear from him again down the line, but his campaign just never quite gained steam in this race, and in the final stretch, key endorsements and fundraising support went Protasiewicz’s way.
The map of Protasiewicz victory reminded me of another recent strong Democratic victory in Wisconsin: Tammy Baldwin’s landslide re-election to U.S. Senate in 2018.
These are big numbers for Protasiewicz. It’s a formidable showing for liberal voters across the state, ready to flip the majority on this court. These are strong numbers in western Wisconsin, the Fox Valley, in Dane and Milwaukee counties and in the still-shifting suburbs.
If you are on the left in Wisconsin or are an independent voter who wants to see change come to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, you have to be optimistic that this could be very winnable race for Janet Protasiewicz.
2. A quick rise and sharp fall for Jennifer Dorow
What started as a big-deal announcement for a candidate who had just gained international attention after a high-profile trial ended on Tuesday with a tough third-place finish in a primary where just the top two advance.
Dorow gave her concession speech at her election night party at the Golden Mast on Okauchee Lake, a place as Waukesha County as it gets. Dorow did well in her home county, but that was one of only two counties where she was the top vote-getter (Washington being the other). Her best numbers came in the Milwaukee media market where she was on television regularly during the Darrell Brooks trial last fall. She got about 45% of the vote in Waukesha County, 45% in Washington, 36% in Ozaukee (behind Protasiewicz, notably), 33% in Racine, 31% in Sheboygan, and 29% in Jefferson, ahead of Kelly in each. But she placed third in Kenosha and Walworth counties, behind Kelly and Protasiewicz, and did not find significant support outside of southeastern Wisconsin in really any capacity.
She struggled mightily in the rest of the state. Kelly did best in the rural counties that have been becoming more solidly red as of late in Wisconsin, and Dorow was a distant third in many of those areas. She did poorly in the crucial Fox Valley, below 20% in Winnebago, Outagamie and Brown counties. In La Crosse County, she got just 13% of the vote. In Eau Claire County, just 8% (!) of the vote.
Going into the year, Dorow seemed ascendant. She was gaining key endorsements and some were wondering if Kelly should drop out and back her. That didn’t happen, of course. And once the campaign really got underway, Dorow’s rising star quickly began to fade. At WisPolitics’ candidate forum on Jan. 9 – which turned out to be the only public debate or forum with all four candidates (covered here at The Recombobulation Area) – Dorow seemed startlingly unprepared, reading formulaic answers verbatim from a binder, offering little of substance.
She never seemed to find her footing in this race and never had a clear message to deliver to voters. The attacks from Kelly and his backers became relentless, and outside spending from liberal groups ripped Dorow, too. She was getting criticized from groups representing interests from both the right and the left.
She ended up getting less than 22% of the statewide vote. Her campaign lasted just 83 days.
It’s a tough loss for her and for her supporters, and yet another instance of a Republican woman running for higher office in this state struggling to find support within her party. She may have been the best chance for conservatives to win this race, but that says more about the quality of candidate that Daniel Kelly is than anything. Conservatives, desperate to find a candidate other than Kelly — the exact type of MAGA-leaning, election-denying candidate who did poorly in the 2022 midterms — to challenge liberals in this race landed on Dorow after her brief star turn, but that decision didn’t pan out, as Dorow did not prove to be up to the task in this race.
3. Uihlein money is key for Daniel Kelly, who is an awful candidate
We’ll be getting into this more in the weeks to come, but Daniel Kelly is a genuinely awful candidate. Just really, really bad. He lost big in his last bid for a 10-year term on the court, and is aligned with the far-right wing of the Republican Party that did especially poorly in the midterms, and has an abysmal record to run on. There’s no way around it, he is a bad candidate. There’s a reason so many on the right were desperate to find someone else.
His second-place primary victory is reminding me a bit of Bob Donovan’s second-place finish in the Spring Election Primary in the race for mayor of Milwaukee just one year ago — which we correctly predicted would end with a Cavalier Johnson landslide victory. Like Donovan, Kelly is someone who can speak to a distinct base but has no real appeal outside of it. It would seem like he would be destined for the same fate as Donovan as the inevitable loser if not for two things – 1) Simply, there are a whole lot of conservatives in this 50-50 swing state and reflexive partisanship will push many right-leaning voters into his camp, and 2) the Uihlein money that’s been backing him.
I wrote about this a bit in my Election Night live blog, so I won’t belabor the point here, but we just saw what Uihlein spending can do to a statewide race in Wisconsin. Ron Johnson had significant backing from the Illinois-based owner of Wisconsin-based Uline and that helped him win a narrow victory last November.
Do not for one second overlook the Uihlein money factor in this race.
4. Dan Knodl wins the Republican primary for 8th Senate District, but he is no moderate
Last week at Milwaukee Record, we took a closer look at the other big race on the ballot this spring, the race for the 8th Senate District. This ultra-gerrymandered suburban district that somehow includes parts of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties is a crucial one for statewide politics as a State Senate supermajority will hinge on the outcome of this election.
The trio of Republicans running in the primary was an…interesting group. But Democrats clearly wanted to be facing State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, one of the most extreme election denying elected officials in the state if not the country, who was endorsed by Donald Trump. Wisconsin Democrats even spent on ads attacking her in a way that would boost her among a far-right base.
But in the end, she wasn’t even close, winning just 28% of the vote, gaining less than half of the total votes of State Rep. Dan Knodl, who won the race with about 57% of the vote (Van Mobley, who spent $100,000 of his own money on the race, came in third with 15%).
Knodl might not quite be Janel Brandtjen, but he is anything but a moderate. He was among 15 state legislators who signed a letter to Mike Pence urging him not to certify the 2020 presidential election, he supports alarming and unpopular policies on abortion rights, and is among the group of Republican legislators pushing for flat tax that would massively cut taxes on the wealthiest Wisconsinites.
Jodi Habush Sinikyn, however, is by all accounts a very strong candidate and someone who has the chance to flip this district to be represented by a Democrat for the first time in more than 30 years. She faced no primary challenger, which could work against her in some ways since she has not yet been tested, but it also gave her a big head start amassing endorsements and fundraising, where state records show she has a significant lead over Knodl. Her late contribution report showed that she raised $116,500 in the final stretch before the primary.
It’s still a Republican leaning district, to be sure, but there’s reason to believe the Democrat can pull off an upset here in this left-trending suburban district.
5. The Dane County turnout engine might be the biggest force in statewide elections right now
Statewide turnout in this race was strong, shattering records for a Spring Election Primary. And in no place was that more the case than in Dane County, which had the highest turnout of any county in the state.
Dane County is the second-most populous and fastest growing county in the state. And while it has always been a reliable Democratic stronghold, it’s growing bluer and bluer with each election cycle. Neither conservative candidate even got to 9% of the vote in Dane County. That is remarkable.
Both in turnout and in voting margin, there is nothing Republicans have that can compete with the Dane County Democratic powerhouse. They are losing voters in the WOW counties, and there are simply not enough people living in rural counties to make up the margins that Dane is delivering.
6. The Crucial Fox Valley (+Door)
Here at The Recombobulation Area, we always have an eye on what’s happening in the key swing region of the Fox Valley. This is a part of the state with a real independent streak. In 2018, the region’s four key counties – Winnebago, Outagamie, Brown and Door – all went for Tammy Baldwin and all went for Scott Walker.
In this primary, Protasiewicz was the top vote-getter in each of those counties. Now, in aggregate, conservative candidates did better than liberal candidates in Outagamie and Brown, but liberal candidates got more than 50% of the vote in Winnebago and Door.
As mentioned earlier, this is a part of the state where Dorow did especially poorly relative to where she needed to be to compete statewide. Kelly did fine, but as we always say here, there is real opportunity for Democrats to improve in the Fox Valley.
The one county that seems to be trending especially blue in the Fox Valley and northeast part of the state is Door County. Protasiewicz got more than 50% of the vote there, and this is a county that both Tony Evers and Joe Biden won in their respective Wisconsin victories (Ron Johnson won there by just 75 votes).
That Door appears to be swinging.
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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.