Opinion: Wisconsin sends an undeniable warning to the GOP
Editor’s Note: James Wigderson is the former editor of RightWisconsin.com, a conservative-leaning news website, and the author of a twice-weekly newsletter, “Life, Under Construction.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In every tale of the Faustian bargain, there is the moment when the devil collects his payment. For former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, that moment came when he lost the election that would have put him back on the court and preserved a 4-3 conservative majority.
Instead, Kelly lost to Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz by over 10% in Tuesday’s election to fill a vacancy on the state’s highest court that will be left by the impending retirement of conservative Justice Patience “Pat” Roggensack.
By Wisconsin standards, it was a blowout. It’s the first time liberals will have a majority on the state Supreme Court since 2008.
On Wednesday, former President Donald Trump offered his explanation for why Kelly lost.
“Daniel Kelly of Wisconsin just lost his Supreme Court Election,” Trump posted on Truth Social. “He bragged that he won’t seek Trump’s Endorsement, so I didn’t give it — which guaranteed his loss. How foolish is a man that doesn’t seek an Endorsement that would have won him the Election?”
Just sign here in blood and you will get everything your heart desires.
However, this was Kelly’s second loss since April 2020. Trump failed to mention that Kelly lost his seat on the court three years ago — with an endorsement from Trump. While Kelly may have tried a different tactic this time around, he has been irrevocably associated with Trump, having advised the Republican Party of Wisconsin on the 2020 election, including the decision to have fake Republican electors meet secretly in the state Capitol to falsely claim Wisconsin voted for Trump.
Kelly also harshly criticized fellow conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn for occasionally siding with the liberals on the court on issues such as the state’s pandemic response, redistricting and even blocking Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, a 4-3 decision backed by Hagedorn and the three current liberals on the court.
Then Kelly toured the state for the Republican Party, speaking on “election integrity” at events closed to the press.
If being close to Trump would help a statewide candidate in Wisconsin, Kelly would have easily won. Instead, Protasiewicz used part of her fundraising advantage to attack Kelly for his ties to Trump and the Republican Party.
At stake in Tuesday’s election was more than a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. As Protasiewicz made clear during her campaign, the election was a referendum on the state’s 1849 abortion ban and the lines of the legislative districts redrawn after the last census to lock in Republican majorities in the state legislature.
Following the Democratic Party playbook since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Protasiewicz hammered Kelly on the airwaves over his endorsements from the state’s pro-life organizations while telling voters that she personally supported a woman’s right to an abortion.
The Protasiewicz campaign strategy worked. Her victory continued an electoral trend in Wisconsin, with the continued erosion of support for Republican candidates in the suburban counties surrounding Milwaukee in the age of Trump.
If Republicans are going to reverse their fortunes in these suburban counties, they’re going to have to settle the abortion issue. According to the Marquette University Law School poll, the majority of independent voters remains consistently opposed to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe. Those independent voters, especially women, are now pulling the lever for the Democrats.
But Republicans are also going to have to end the blood contract with Trump. The trend of Republicans losing suburban votes began before Roe v. Wade was overturned. As recently as 2012, the Republican margins of victory in presidential elections in the three counties to the north and west of Milwaukee County were 40.1% in Washington County, 34.5% in Waukesha County and 30.3% in Ozaukee County, according to Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. By 2020, those margins of victory had dropped to 38.1% in Washington County, 20.9% in Waukesha County and just 12% in Ozaukee County.
Those three counties, collectively known as the WOW counties, once provided enough votes for Republican statewide candidates to offset the Democrats’ advantage in Milwaukee County.
But since the appearance of Trump in 2016, the Republican advantage has been evaporating. Ozaukee County, Milwaukee County’s northern neighbor along the lakefront, is now almost evenly split with Kelly winning just 52% of the vote, down 11% from what the last successful conservative Supreme Court justice received in that county in 2019.
Kelly even lost the city of Waukesha (49.7%), my hometown, which the conservative Hagedorn won with 60.6% of the vote in 2019.
In 2022, businessman Tim Michels ran for governor after seeking Trump’s endorsement and even agreeing with the former president that the election was stolen. Michels lost by 3.3%.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin just managed to squeak out an election victory in 2022 with a 1% margin over a very weak Democratic opponent after attempting to minimize what happened on January 6 and criticizing any investigation of Trump. (Johnson may have been saved by his new position on abortion, calling for limits to be decided in a statewide referendum.)
As long as the Trump drama continues and he continues to lead the race for the Republican nomination for president, Wisconsin’s suburban voters will continue to punish the state Republican Party’s candidates with ties to the former president. The Republican Party of Wisconsin may well regret hosting the national convention in 2024 if Trump is the nominee again.