Another State Supreme Court Battle Brews In Wisconsin


Few states are as politically divided as Wisconsin, which voted for former President Trump in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, and for President Biden in 2020 by an even narrower 20-thousand vote margin. Federally, Wisconsin is one of just a handful of states that elected a bipartisan senate duo to Washington. In the House, it is represented by a 6-2 Republican delegation. The disconnect between Wisconsin’s competitive statewide baseline and its lopsided congressional results stems both from poor political geography for Democrats and blatant gerrymandering. 

The impact of Republican gerrymanders is particularly stark at the state level. Democrats won three of Wisconsin’s four statewide offices in 2022, including the governor’s mansion, yet the GOP netted seats in both chambers of the legislature. As we’ll note later on, a Republican victory in the special election in Wisconsin’s 8th Senate district would also cement a gerrymandered GOP supermajority in the upper chamber.

But the outcome in Wisconsin’s sole 2023 statewide election could jeopardize the Republican legislature’s skewed maps and force redraws of the congressional and legislative maps alike. This would affect hot-button state political issues, from the autonomy of Governor Tony Evers (D) to the sustainability of abortion rights following the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision last June.

The Supreme Court Race


For the fourth time in five years, Wisconsin voters will decide a fiercely-contested state supreme court race. Democratic-aligned candidates Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky comfortably flipped seats on the state’s highest court in 2018 and 2020, shifting the balance toward the liberal bloc, though Republican-aligned contender Brian Hagedorn’s slim 2019 victory detracted slightly from that leftward momentum.

Each of those three contests seemed to garner more national attention than the last, as large amounts of outside money fueled heated campaigns that members of both parties considered proxies for the 2018 and 2020 general elections. While it’s unwise to read too much into the national implications of off-cycle state supreme court races conducted under a nonpartisan election system, the 2018 returns provided a reasonable snapshot of what was a Democratic-leaning midterm environment.

But the scale of national, and even international, interest accompanying this year’s state supreme court race could make the last three campaigns look tame. 2023 spending (about $5 million so far) is already on track to surpass total expenditures from 2020’s contest. With a chance to flip court control (Republican-aligned justices currently hold a 4-3 majority) Democratic enthusiasm is at fever pitch. Underwhelming Republican midterm performances in Wisconsin have likely contributed to this sentiment.

Candidates & Process

Wisconsin’s seven state supreme court seats come up for election pursuant to a staggered class system, with justices serving ten year terms. Elections are non-partisan, which does create some level of added variance, though most candidates’ Republican or Democratic affiliations are clear to the voters. The non-partisan system necessitates blanket primaries.

Besides the fact that control of the court is on the line, this year’s contest is of heightened importance because Justice Pat Roggensack, a Republican-aligned candidate who won easily in 2013, is leaving the bench. Without an incumbent on the ballot, the liberal bloc’s chances of flipping this seat and securing a majority increase.

Four candidates are competing in tonight’s non-partisan primary: judges Everett Mitchell, Janet Protasiewicz, Jennifer Dorow, and ex-justice Dan Kelly. Mitchell and Protasiewicz constitute the liberal slate, while Dorow and Kelly represent the conservative side of the race. They collectively reside in three of Wisconsin’s most important counties: Milwaukee, Dane (Madison), and Waukesha. The top two candidates from the primary will advance to the April 4th general election.

Dorow, endorsed by Roggensack, came to fame by presiding over the trial of mass murderer Darrell Brooks. Kelly, backed by Justice Bradley, lost to Jill Karofsky in a 2020 landslide and is now orchestrating a comeback. Between Mitchell and Protasiewicz, the latter has received more endorsements from the Democratic-aligned justices. 

Campaign & Important Issues

This year’s campaign is the most intense in recent memory because state and national Democrats finally have an opportunity to flip control of Wisconsin’s state supreme court to the liberal bloc. Such a change in power could have massive implications for gerrymandered Republican legislative and congressional maps and force redistricting for the 2024 elections. 


All empirical evidence so far suggests that the eventual Democratic-aligned candidate will be in a strong position to flip Roggensack’s supreme court seat on April 4th – assuming neither the liberal nor conservative factions lock themselves out of the primary. National Democratic groups supportive of Mitchell and Protasiewicz have slightly outspent their counterparts in what may soon become the most expensive state supreme court race in American history, whereas Protasiewicz herself is the most prodigious fundraiser in the race and has outspent all other candidates combined. 

On top of that, heavily-Democratic Milwaukee and Dane counties currently account for 34% of the primary vote cast as of February 17th. That’s compared to 32% at the same time before the 2019 primary. Democratic-aligned candidate Lisa Neubauer lost that year’s state supreme court race by less than one point. More notably, the Democratic-trending, but still heavily-Republican, “WOW” counties account for just 15% of the primary vote so far. That’s visibly less than the 19% in 2019 and 16% in 2020, when President Biden narrowly carried Wisconsin.

After the primary results are compiled we will release an ideological composite map designed to estimate general election coalitions. While it’s impossible to make decisive conclusions without actual data on differential turnout between Republicans and Democrats, state supreme court candidates’ affiliations have historically been more or less clear to voters informed enough to turn out in an off-year.

In other words, state supreme court election outcomes usually adhere to Wisconsin’s standard coalitions – with obvious exceptions for variance caused by differing national environments, incumbency, and crossover voting heightened by the non-partisan election system. 

We plan to issue a formal rating for the 2023 general election after the primary, but preliminary data suggest the eventual Democratic-aligned nominee should perform similarly to Governor Tony Evers (i.e., a 2-4 point win instead of a double-digit one like Karofsky’s in 2020 or an outright loss like Neuman’s in 2019).

While it’s inherently difficult to predict a four-way non-partisan primary election in a closely-divided swing state without polling, we at Split Ticket feel obligated to pick favorites. Given that the field is equally divided ideologically, we expect both the Democratic- and Republican-aligned factions to have a candidate in the April general election. In other words, neither bloc should get locked out even though the last few state supreme court primaries only featured two or three competitive candidates.

Now for the trickiest question: which candidates do we expect to advance? Acknowledging the uncertainty pervading the primary election, we believe judges Janet Protasiewicz (Milwaukee) and Daniel Kelly (Waukesha) have the best shot at making the general election.

In Protasiewicz’s case, she comes from the largest Democratic base in the state in Milwaukee and has raised a staggering $1.9 million to date, which is over $500,000 more than the other three combined. She has also received substantial backing from outside groups and has received endorsements from sitting justices. Mitchell, meanwhile, has raised a paltry $221,000 in comparison; in our view, the fundraising deficit he faces is far too big, and we think Protasiewicz is the clear favorite of the liberal bloc to emerge from the primary.

The conservative case is a bit more complicated, and we can make a case for either candidate. Dorow has outraised Kelly and also received the endorsements of sitting justices such as the retiring Roggensack. She may also benefit from heightened name recognition due to her presiding over the prosecution of Darrell Brooks, the murderer behind the Waukesha Christmas Parade attacks. But Kelly has more outside spending backing him, and it seems as if this, combined with his previous status as an appointed statewide Supreme Court Justice and his high name recognition from having been on the ballot against Jill Karofsky in 2020, might carry him over the top.

The Special Election in Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District

The district covers suburban communities north of Milwaukee, which were historically Republican, but are now trending purple. For example, Senator Ron Johnson won this district 54-46 in 2022, after winning the district 62-37 in 2016. This is nearly a 17% swing left over the course of six years. This district is normally an extremely safe GOP seat, but it may be more Democrats have massively outspent Republicans in the primary for this seat, and it may be worth keeping a small eye on it as the race plays out.

In Wisconsin, three State Assembly districts are nested within each State Senate district. Wisconsin’s 8th Senate district is split between the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th State Assembly districts. Two of these, the 22nd and 24th, are represented by Brandtjen and Knodl respectively, both of whom are Republicans vying for the Republican line for the April 4th general election.

The Special Election in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District

One of tonight’s less important contests is the congressional special election in Virginia’s 4th district, a safe Democratic, D+34.0 seat connecting Richmond proper with a diffuse mixture of rural black and white communities in the coastal plain counties. The 4th opened up late last year after Democratic incumbent Don McEachin passed away due to complications with cancer. Democratic State Senator Jennifer McClellan is expected to comfortably defeat 2022 Republican nominee Leon Benjamin. Safe Democratic

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