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Liberal cruises in Wisconsin court race, and Dems see hope

Judge Rebecca Dallet stands with her family at the podium as they celebrate at Good City Brewing on Tuesday. Dallet defeated Michael Screnock on Tuesday for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, shrinking the court's conservative majority and giving Democrats a jolt of energy heading into the fall election. 

RICK WOOD, MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Gov. Scott Walker and state Republicans are again sounding the alarm about a growing Democratic surge after Tuesday’s double-digit victory by a Supreme Court candidate backed by liberals.

Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet’s 12-point defeat of Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock signaled Democratic voter enthusiasm could be formidable heading into two special legislative elections this summer and pivotal gubernatorial, U.S. House and Senate, state attorney general, and legislative races in the fall.

It comes after Democrats won a state Senate district in January that it had not held since 2001.

Notably, Dallet won 24 Wisconsin counties carried by GOP President Donald Trump in 2016. Far fewer people voted Tuesday than in the presidential election two years ago, but many observers say the results are striking and suggest a problem for Republicans heading into campaign season.

“I don’t think Republicans can walk around and just blow this off,” said Brandon Scholz, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked on Supreme Court campaigns. “The canary is dead.”

On Tuesday, Dallet became the first Supreme Court candidate supported by Democrats to win an open seat since 1995. And in a separate ballot question, more than 60 percent of voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to eliminate the state treasurer’s office.

“Democrats, progressives and the largest voting block in the country — Gen-X and millennials — are energized and realize the power they have to make change with their votes,” said Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director for the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.

Walker, who is seeking a third term in November, issued a fundraising plea Wednesday along with several tweets urging Republicans to prepare for a tough election year — a warning similar to the one he issued after a Democrat won a special Senate election in a northwest Wisconsin district Republicans had held since 2001.

“The results show something very troubling — we are at risk of a Blue Wave in Wisconsin,” Walker said of the Supreme Court vote in the fundraising email.

At a bill signing in La Crosse, Walker suggested Republicans should campaign on their records.

“We’ve got a great story to tell,” Walker said, citing Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment rate and increased spending on schools in the latest budget. “We just can’t assume people know about the good things. We’ve got to spell it out.”

Dallet competitive

outside liberal areas

State Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said Wednesday that Dallet’s victory isn’t necessarily indicative of what will happen in the fall election. As an example he pointed to conservative Michael Gableman winning a Supreme Court race in 2008 several months before Democrat Barack Obama won the state’s presidential contest. But he didn’t want to downplay the need to energize Republicans.

“Democrats are angrier and more motivated than ever to undo the Wisconsin comeback — conservatives need to match that energy to keep moving our state forward,” Zimmerman said.

Some Republicans attributed part of Dallet’s win to massive turnout in liberal Dane County, where she picked up 81 percent of the vote.

Still, Dallet ran a competitive race outside the state’s liberal strongholds. Not counting votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties, Screnock led Dallet by just 8,500 votes, or 1 percentage point. Trump and Republican-backed Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley both won their 2016 races outside Dane and Milwaukee counties by 15 percentage points.

In Door County, where Walker won by 9 percentage points in 2014, Dallet won by 24. Dallet also narrowly won St. Croix County, which Walker won by 20 percentage points in 2014. In Outagamie County, Dallet bested Screnock by 12 percentage points even though Walker won that county in 2014 by 20 percentage points. Trump carried all three counties in 2016.

Scholz said Dallet was able to reach voters in areas of the state former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost in her 2016 presidential bid.

“There was nothing there for them (in 2016) and the Dallet campaign successfully reached them and made those people want to vote,” he said. “The Democrats used their loss in the last presidential election to produce what they have today and the Republicans will need to do the same.”

Margaret Farrow, a former Republican lieutenant governor from Waukesha County, attributed Dallet’s success to Republican complacency and Democratic anger at Walker and Trump. Looking ahead to November, she said Walker’s chances of winning re-election are a “toss-up.”

“There’s more satisfaction on the Republican side on the voter equation than on the Democratic side who hate everything Walker does and did and hate everything Trump does and did, and it’s easier to get those voters out,” Farrow said.

Scholz said Republicans have more work to do than to simply ramp up voting in future elections.

“I think it’s a systemic issue,” he said. “It’s not just a ‘let’s turn our people out’ — it’s more than that. It’s more of a base (issue) and the ability of the party to draw in independents and others.”

Special election controversy

Dallet’s victory comes a week after Walker and Republicans stepped away from their effort to block special elections from being held in Senate District 1 and Assembly District 42, which have been vacant since December.

Republicans argued holding such elections are a waste of money given the few weeks lawmakers are in session this year, but Democrats said Republicans were just trying to avoid holding the contests because of the Democratic surge.

Dallet won three of the six counties within Senate District 1, which includes Door County, and two of the six counties in Assembly District 42, including Columbia County.

State Democrats, who have been starved for electoral victories since Walker and Republicans swept into power in 2010 amid a national recession, were quick to celebrate the win as a sign Walker’s days as governor are numbered.

“Walker is not upset by last night’s defeat. He is upset that he was unable to buy and rig his way to another victory,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning said in a statement Wednesday. “The Republican playbook of gerrymandering our legislative maps, implementing voting restrictions and twisting campaign finance laws to win is no longer working for them, and Scott Walker is terrified.”

The La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.