The last time I remember a Wisconsin supreme court election making national news was the Prosser/Kloppenburg war of 2011, which came soon after the liberal revolt over Walker’s prized collective-bargaining reforms. The left was hyped for that race believing that a victory for the liberal Kloppenburg would signal to Walker and Republicans in the state legislature that there’d be electoral hell to pay if they didn’t abandon those reforms. Prosser won a tight race, though. The next year, Walker defeated the left’s bid to recall him as governor. Two years after that he beat them again, winning reelection. Two years after that, Trump shocked the world by edging past Hillary to win Wisconsin. It’s been a remarkable run of success for Republicans in a purple state.
But it crashed hard last night. Liberal Rebecca Dallet beat Walker-endorsed conservative Michael Screnock, and it wasn’t close:
It marked the first time in 23 years that a liberal candidate who wasn’t an incumbent won a seat on the high court…
With 88% of wards reporting, Dallet led Screnock 56% to 44%, according to unofficial returns…
The election will swing conservative control of the court from a comfortable 5-2 to a narrow 4-3. Dallet — to be seated in August for a 10-year term — will replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman, who did not seek re-election.
Blue areas were very, very blue:
i can't recall a contested/competitive statewide election of any kind in WI where the liberal or Dem candidate got 80% of the Dane County vote, as Dallet is on track to get in WI Sup Court race. Is there one? Herb Kohl didn't even hit 80% in Dane in blow-out '06 Senate victory
— Craig Gilbert (@WisVoter) April 4, 2018
Some state GOPers were stoic afterward, pointing out that the electorate for a state judicial election in April and the midterms in November are completely different. Okay, but big money (relatively speaking) was spent on this one. And how many state judicial candidates draw endorsements from a former VP in Joe Biden and a former AG in Eric Holder, as Dallet did? Democrats did their best to “nationalize” this race by treating it as a referendum on Trump and their base responded. They’ll run the same playbook this fall.
I know one Republican who’s not dismissing last night’s results:
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.
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 4, 2018
We have a positive story to tell & we need conservatives to take action and stop a #BlueWave by getting out there and telling it. Volunteer to share our optimistic plan for the future here: https://t.co/PLjD3aaaU5
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 4, 2018
If that feels familiar, it’s because he’s sounded the alarm once before this year. That came in January when Democrats flipped a strongly pro-Trump district to win a Wisconsin state senate seat. “Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin,” Walker tweeted at the time. They haven’t woken up, which is bad news for a man who’s seeking his third term as governor this fall.
Walker’s not in dire straits yet, though. He’s proved more than once that he’s capable of beating back a ferocious Democratic effort to topple him, and he’s fortunate not to have a formidable Democratic challenger (yet). A poll taken by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel a few weeks ago showed Wisconsin Dems split every which way in their upcoming gubernatorial primary. On the other hand, Republicans are hoping to pick up a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin this fall by knocking off Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and they don’t have a formidable challenger yet either. Baldwin is vulnerable — her favorable rating was recently measured at 37/39 — but the GOP primary is between a businessman and a state senator, each of whom has practically zero name recognition. The goal last year for Republicans would have been to win both of those races, bumping off Baldwin and handing four more years to Walker. In light of last night’s results and the special election in January, a split seems like the most optimistic outcome.
All of which is to say, Scott Walker may be in his final six months as a national figure. He’s been working quietly to keep up his national profile, possibly with an eye to another presidential run down the line, but being swept away in a blue wave in November would all but end that dream. Last year Wisconsin Republicans practically ruled America: Reince Priebus was in charge in the White House, Paul Ryan was in charge in the House, and Scott Walker was a three-time gubernatorial winner in an important purple state. A year later Priebus is long gone, Ryan’s the subject of endless rumors that he’s on his way into retirement if Dems flip the House this fall, and Walker’s banging the drum warning that a Democratic landslide could bury him. He could always come back as a Senate candidate, I suppose, but he’d probably need to wait years for an opportunity. Ron Johnson just won reelection two years ago and will probably remain the party’s nominee for the seat until he’s beaten or retires. And Baldwin, as noted, is facing voters this fall; if she wins, she’ll be there until 2024. Is this the last act for Walker?