Wisconsin voters decided the first round of this year’s nonpartisan state Supreme Court election on Tuesday. Judges Janet Protasiewicz (a liberal) and Dan Kelly (a conservative) will advance to a hotly-contested April general election in one of the nation’s top swing states.
Although Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates have no formal partisan affiliations, coalitions suggest voters are generally able to discern which parties the contenders’ views mesh with. We’re starting off the general election at Leans Protasiewicz, a cautious acknowledgement that she is favored in a race where heightened Democratic enthusiasm and high spending will play a major role.
If we consider non-partisan primary returns alone, Protasiewicz finished first with 46% of the vote. The other liberal candidate in the race, Dane County circuit court judge Everett Mitchell, lost his home city of Madison and took just 7% of the vote statewide.
The conservative vote split was far more even. Former justice Dan Kelly, who lost re-election to Jill Karofsky in 2020, bested Waukesha County judge Jennifer Dorow 24–22% — or about 23,000 votes. Dorow was generally viewed as the more moderate of the two candidates.
Much like Tim Michels in the 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary against Rebecca Kleefisch, Kelly managed to best Dorow by dominating in rural and small-town Wisconsin — finishing second in between either Protasiewicz or Dorow, or taking pluralities in most of the “outstate” counties.
Although she comfortably won Waukesha County, the traditional suburban powerhouse for Badger State Republicans, Dorow did not do well enough in Washington County or Ozaukee County (which she lost) to keep Kelly in check. Even if she had, she probably wouldn’t have netted enough votes to advance — mirroring Kleefisch’s fate.
Favorable Democratic trends in the WOW counties have reduced the number of voters choosing to vote in Republican primaries relative to 2014 and by extension, lessened support for conservative candidates in nonpartisan contests.
It also stands to reason that many Waukesha County swing voters who preferred Dorow — those who powered a conservative composite overperformance there on Tuesday — may back Protasiewicz in April.
In general, most conservative voters in rural communities understood that Kelly was the more vocally-populist, Trump-adjacent of the two candidates despite the ostensibly non-partisan nature of the primary. Split Ticket estimates show that Kelly would’ve beaten Dorow 53–47% based solely on the votes cast for conservative candidates on Tuesday.
Because the conservative vote was heavily fractured in the face of a more unified liberal contingent, Protasiewicz’s winning coalition offered a look back at the historical Democratic watermarks in the Driftless Area, Northwoods (an extension of Minnesota’s Iron Range), and the Fox Valley.
These coalitions were still apparent when looking at the ideological composite vote — a decent, albeit imperfect, analogue for actual party preference in the nonpartisan primary. Overall, the liberal candidates out-polled their conservative counterparts 54–46%. That’s nothing short of an impressive preliminary victory in a state Joe Biden carried by just 21,000 votes in 2020.
On average, after accounting for conservative overperformances in Waukesha and Milwaukee counties, where down-ballot lag still holds weight, the combined liberal vote overperformed Governor Tony Evers by roughly 4 points.
In so doing, the liberal composite won many of the same counties as Protasiewicz. The winning coalition harkened back to Obama’s lopsided 2012 victory in Wisconsin, quite the feat in any post-Trump statewide contest — even in a nonpartisan primary.
The clearest resemblance between the two coalitions was in the Driftless Area, a band of agricultural counties running along Wisconsin’s border with Iowa and Minnesota. Except for Pepin and Buffalo counties, both of which narrowly voted Democratic in 2012 before breaking for Trump by double digits, the liberal camp’s Driftless sweep was reminiscent of the Obama coalition. Both Obama and the liberal composite won the Driftless counties by about 13 points.
Liberals even outpaced conservatives in St. Croix County, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996, though it is typically too exurban to be counted as part of the Driftless Area. The liberals also dominated in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, winning nearly 70% of the vote in Ashland and Bayfield counties and flipping heavily-Republican Iron — where even Obama came up 6 votes short in 2012.
One notable northern exception to the 2012 coalition was Forest County, which Obama won by 6 points. The historically-Democratic county broke hard for Trump in 2016, but didn’t come back to the fold on Tuesday. The conservative composite won it by 28 points.
Liberals also mirrored Obama in the Fox Valley, where they managed to flip Winnebago County and narrow margins visibly in Brown County (Green Bay). Further south, in Kenosha County, one of the country’s most polarized counties, liberals impressively won a majority of the vote.
Predictions for April
In our eyes, Janet Protasiewicz is favored to flip control of the State Supreme Court in April. Democrats have outspent Republicans in this race in terms of both candidate spending and independent expenditures.
The weaker of the two GOP-aligned contenders is also advancing. Kelly has been linked to the failed fake electors scheme and has made a number of controversial comments on hot-button issues, likening Social Security and affirmative action to slavery.
While we believe Protasiewicz would have been favored against either conservative, Dorow may have been more likely to run a close race. Kelly could be a bridge too far for many of those moderate and suburban Dorow voters. In our view, this race Leans Protasiewicz.
Brief Notes on Special Elections
Democrats showed surprising strength in the special elections held on Tuesday, overperforming Joe Biden significantly across the board. In Virginia’s 4th district, Democrat Jennifer McClellan beat Leon Benjamin by a resounding 50 points in a D+36 district, flipping Republican counties like Dinwiddie (Trump +16, Youngkin +24) and Southampton (Trump +6, Youngkin +19).
Turning the 2021-2022 Coastal Plain turnout dynamic on its head, Black turnout, especially in rural and small-town communities, was very strong for an off-year special election. Rural white turnout was conversely bad, contributing to McClellan’s impressive showing.
Her active campaign energized Democrats while many Republicans simply failed to show up at the polls. There was a statistically-significant negative correlation between a county’s CVAP Black population and the degree of its percentage decline in turnout. Dinwiddie, one of the whiter counties in the seat, stood out in this regard.
Legislative returns also looked good for Biden’s party. In Kentucky, Democrat Cassie Chambers Armstrong won a Biden +31 seat by a whopping 54 points. And in New Hampshire, a special election held to determine a tied November result in a Biden +5 State House seat saw a 12-point Democratic victory. With more special elections expected in the Granite State this year, Republican control of the State House is now in doubt.
While we hesitate to make any extrapolations from the results of low turnout elections, we also do not think that this is simply noise. It appears that there has been a marked improvement in the environment for Democrats since last year’s midterm elections.
This may be because of split government: with Republicans now holding the House, Democrats can avoid being the sole target of voter dissatisfaction stemming from unified government control. Other contributing factors may include Joe Biden’s improved approval rating (which may be linked to divided government), the decreased odds of a recession, continued voter skepticism of the GOP’s agenda, or a possible dip in asymmetric partisan enthusiasm following the midterms.
Special elections now suggest an environment that is significantly more Democratic than it was just six months ago, so it will be interesting to see whether this holds. Democrats need an environment similar to the current one to be favored in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election or to have any shot of flipping Mississippi’s governorship.