Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's "wake-up call" got a lot louder Tuesday, thanks to liberal Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet's resounding victory in the state's hotly contested Supreme Court race.
Not only did Dallet beat Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock by 11.6 percentage points, a Walker-supported proposal to eliminate the office of the state treasurer also failed by 23.6 points.
Dallet, 48, is the first candidate backed by Democrats and liberals to win an open state Supreme Court seat in 23 years. The Milwaukee County judge will serve a 10-year term, replacing conservative Michael Gableman, who did not seek re-election. With Dallet on the bench, the court will be split 4-3 between conservatives and liberals, and six of its seven justices will be women.
Although these races are officially nonpartisan, they are increasingly fought along ideological lines that align with traditional party divisions. Political flash-point issues like abortion, guns and environmental regulations drive the debate as much as questions of judicial records and philosophies do, making the races a proxy for partisan contests.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning framed the election as "a huge loss for Gov. Scot Walker, more so even than Judge Michael Screnock, as Walker's endorsement, philosophy and politics were on the ballot."
A memo from the Wisconsin Democratic Coordinated Campaign — composed of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin's program, the state party and other Democratic campaigns — boasted a get-out-the-vote operation for Dallet that yielded 625 canvass shifts with nearly 45,000 voter contacts in the last four days of the campaign.
Dallet ran with the backing of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which spent more than $500,000 on digital ads and voter turnout efforts. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords all endorsed Dallet.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Wisconsin poured more than $400,000 into Screnock's campaign. Screnock, 48, was backed by the National Rifle Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business lobby, along with elected officials including Walker and Gableman.
While Republicans insist the election results are not predictive of what will happen in November, Walker — who is seeking a third term — was the first party leader to sound the alarm to supporters.
"Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November," Walker tweeted Tuesday night.
Walker's tweets were followed by a fundraising email sent Wednesday morning, warning that "the anger of the Left could sweep us out of office in November and undo all of our reforms."
At the same time, the state GOP pointed to state Supreme Court races in the springs of 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2015 that did not translate into wins for the corresponding parties in gubernatorial and presidential elections. Most recently, liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley soundly defeated her conservative opponent in April 2015, not long before Wisconsin voters elected President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in November 2016.
Democratic strategist Melissa Baldauff, a former spokeswoman for the state party, said Walker is wrong that voters on the left are driven by anger, although she said frustration with Walker, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan is a factor in their energy.
"I don't think it's anger. I think it’s the opposite," Baldauff said. "I would say it is voting out of optimism and what’s possible. I think that people are motivated and they’re inspired. They know what our government can be, and what our communities can be when we elect progressive leaders who will invest in the kinds of programs that people need."
A stark enthusiasm gap exists between voters in the two parties. According to a Marquette University Law School poll released last month, 64 percent of Democrats are "very enthusiastic" about voting, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. At the same time of year before the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans had a three-percent enthusiasm edge over Democrats.
Lobbyist Brandon Scholz, who has worked on behalf of conservative Supreme Court candidates in the past, said Republicans are well aware that "their people are asleep." That was made clear on Tuesday by the fact that voters in liberal Dane County significantly outpaced voter turnout in conservative Waukesha County.
For Republicans, the "canary in the (coalmine) ... died in this election," Scholz said. The traditional playbook didn't work, and Republicans have problems to fix by November, he added.
Without the help Screnock's campaign received from the Republican Party, Scholz said he thinks Dallet's margin of victory would have been even wider.
"For Supreme Court races, this was not a well-run campaign, for a lot of reasons — on the retail side, the candidate roll-outs," Scholz said. "It was just always hard to grasp this campaign."
Despite Dallet's win and an unexpected Democratic victory in a January special election for the 10th Senate District, Scholz isn't sold in the idea of a "blue wave."
"Democrats did a number of things right that, all credit to them, won this race," Scholz said. "This certainly isn’t a tsunami. It certainly is not a blue wave. It might be a blue ripple."
Baldauff agreed that Dallet's victory does not guarantee wins for Democrats in November, but said progressives should be encouraged by it.
"One of the big takeaways here is that it takes that combination of a great candidate with a great message who shares Wisconsin’s values and is backed up by a great program to communicate to voters all around the state," Baldauff said.
There are about a dozen Democratic candidates vying to unseat Walker this fall. Two Republicans are fighting to be their party's nominee in the effort to unseat Baldwin in the Senate.
Two months before the August primary elections, voters will go to the polls for special elections for the 1st Senate District and 42nd Assembly District. Walker, who had for months refused to call the elections, was ordered by three judges to hold them after being sued by Holder's NDRC.
Baldauff said she believes those campaigns will fuel momentum for Democratic candidates.
"I think people have hope and they’re seeing wins and they’re seeing progress, and that’s encouraging," she said.