MADISON — The dominating victory by a liberal candidate in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race emboldened Democrats deflated by years of defeats, pushing Republican Gov. Scott Walker to issue a series of warnings Wednesday about a possible “blue wave” in the red state.
Democrats heralded Rebecca Dallet’s victory as the clearest sign yet voters are back on their side after seven years of Republican control of the Wisconsin Statehouse and Donald Trump’s 1-point victory in the state in 2016.
“Last night is another indication that every Republican in Wisconsin should be running scared,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki on Wednesday. “The progressive candidate here over-performed recent history in every type of community, rural, urban, suburban, exurban and that puts everything in play for this fall.”
Walker, who is up for re-election in November, exhorted supporters on Twitter to see the warning signs.
“We are at risk of a Blue Wave in Wisconsin,” Walker said in a fundraising email Wednesday. “After these two defeats, it is clear that our big bold reforms are in jeopardy.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a top GOP target, also is on the ballot in November, along with the entire state Assembly and half the Senate.
Dallet won 24 counties across the state that Trump had carried in 2016, a troubling sign for Republicans. Her win also comes after a surprise Democratic victory in a special state Senate election that had been under Republican control for 17 years and that Trump carried.
Three months ago, Walker called the special election loss a “wake up call.”
Those two wins, coupled with Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat in December, shows Democrats are on pace for big gains nationally in November, said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based national Democratic pollster.
“Everything is lining up in one direction,” Maslin said. “There’s no question they’re headed for a major defeat and we’re headed for a major victory. … Our people are motivated and are taking action in the best way possible, which is at the ballot box.”
But Republicans argue spring elections — where turnout is roughly half of what it will be in November — are poor indicators of what will happen in the fall. Still, longtime political observers in Wisconsin on both sides agreed the win emphasizes that Democrats are more energized at the moment than Republicans.
“It’s clearly a wake-up call,” said Republican strategist Brandon Scholz. “I don’t think a poorly run campaign makes a blue wave, but I do think the Republicans are challenged with having to draw the passion factor equal.”
Walker last month was forced to call special elections for two other legislative vacancies after three judges ordered him to proceed against his wishes. Those elections, for seats that had been held by Republicans until they left to join Walker’s administration, will be June 12.
Martha Laning, director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, cast the Dallet victory as a referendum on Walker since he had endorsed her opponent in the officially nonpartisan race.
“How many more wake-up calls do Walker and the GOP need before they realize their extremism is out-of-touch with Wisconsin values?” Laning said.
Dallet trounced conservative challenger Michael Screnock by 12 points — 56 percent to 44 percent — to become the first liberal candidate to win election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court when there’s an open seat since 1995. Her victory means that six of the seven seats on the state’s highest court will be women, but conservatives will still control it 4-3.
Only Washington state has more women on its highest court, but in percentage terms Wisconsin is the highest, according to the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics.
Turnout was 22.2 percent, the highest for a spring election since 2011 and second-highest over the past 12 Supreme Court elections.
Dallet’s candidacy won support from national Democrats, something never-before-seen in a state Supreme Court race, with an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, former Vice President Joe Biden recording robocalls and a group run by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dumping half a million dollars into the contest.
Holder, who sued to force Walker to call the two upcoming legislative special elections, said the Dallet win was really about Walker.
“Under the leadership of Scott Walker and his administration, the right to vote has been systematically attacked and the concerns of corporations, outside special interests and the Republican party placed ahead of the people,” he said in a statement. “Today, the voters of Wisconsin took a critical first step toward a state government that better reflects their needs and interests.”