April 16, 2020 — The April 7th Badger State primary election results were announced this Monday, and former vice president Joe Biden easily defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), 63-32 percent, but that’s not the real story behind the final statewide totals.
The bigger race was an ostensibly nonpartisan state Supreme Court judicial election between appointed incumbent Daniel Kelly and Dane County Circuit Court judge Jill Karofsky. Though the Republican and Democratic labels did not appear on the ballot, both parties were heavily invested. And, with much money being spent and both sides “all-in”, many believed it to be a precursor to this year’s presidential campaign in a state that could well become the deciding factor nationally.
Wisconsin Republicans needed the seat to maintain their 5-2 majority on the court, and Democrats wanted to narrow the margin to 4-3 in order to position themselves to take the majority in the next election; hence, this contest’s importance.
Controversy surrounded whether to even hold the election. Democratic insiders and activists were lobbying Gov. Tony Evers (D) to petition the legislature to delay the vote because of the Coronavirus situation. Evers delayed taking action, but finally went to the legislature a week before the vote. The Republican legislative leaders turned Evers down, and subsequent court decisions backed the decision to hold the election on schedule, virtually the only state that was moving forward with an in-person voting mode.
The announced results gave Judge Karofsky a big 55-45 percent upset win, and whether or not this is a precursor to the presidential result remains to be seen. Some believe the fact that the Republican leadership was insisting on moving forward with the election – with people believing they wanted the election as scheduled because they felt the quicker vote favored them – resulted in a voter backlash; hence, Karofsky’s large margin in what was projected to be a much closer electoral contest.
Democrats fought hard to postpone the election and increase the mail-in facet – and most believe they wanted such because they perceived it favored them – but clearly won the election even under the voting structure that the Republicans desired.
The resulted turnout was exceedingly high for the Supreme Court race, just over 1.488 million voters. This compares to just over 566,000 voters for the same office in the 2016 primary election. Regardless of when the primary occurred, there was always a realization that Democrats would benefit from an increased turnout because they were involved in what at the time appeared to be a contested presidential nomination election.
Looking at the turnout for the pair of party primaries reveals interesting trends. The results show Karofsky getting almost 93 percent of the total Democratic presidential turnout, with Justice Kelly getting slightly more than the total Republican presidential turnout, an election where President Trump was virtually unopposed. Therefore, it appears that partisan polarization was severe in this judicial contest.
The Supreme Court campaigns, aided with a great deal of outside spending for both candidates, focused on a traditional Republican-Democrat issue emphasis even though the election structure was non-partisan and some of Karofsky’s ads emphasized that she would issue rulings based only upon the law. Her other ads stressed traditional Democratic issues of women’s rights, environment, and fighting public corruption that conversely brought partisan overtones into the campaign.
Justice Kelly’s ads concentrated on more Republican themes of being tough on criminals and supporting the state Constitution. Therefore, it was not difficult to see where the two candidates aligned politically, and both attempted to emphasize that their personal views would not influence their judicial decisions.
Another interesting aside in this race is how the candidates performed in the northwestern Wisconsin 7th Congressional District, and whether this vote would serve as a precursor to the special congressional election that is coming on May 12. In that race, to fill the remaining portion of the term from which Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau) resigned earlier in the year, Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) and Wausau School Board Member Tricia Zunker (D) square off in next month’s special election.
The 7th District has moved from a Democratic seat in the decades when former House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D) represented the seat to what is now a reliably Republican domain.
The CD contains all or part of 25 counties. In a hotly contested race, the Republican candidate should typically approach the 53-54 percentile. Looking at the Supreme Court candidates in these counties, and estimated for the congressional district, Justice Kelly broke 52 percent, obviously winning the region, but a bit below what a Republican candidate would usually score.
This suggests that Sen. Tiffany remains the clear favorite and probably does not give the Democratic establishment too much encouragement for investing any more funds in support of Ms. Zunker’s campaign.
Whether or not this Supreme Court election outcome serves as a precursor to a Trump-Biden end result remains to be determined, but Democrats are certainly pleased with the preliminary results. Expect an increased emphasis on Wisconsin from both sides as the presidential campaign begins to re-tool once the Coronavirus slowdown finally subsides.