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Thursday, April 06, 2023

5 Lessons for Democrats From Victories in Wisconsin and Chicago

5 Lessons for Democrats From Victories in Wisconsin and Chicago

“The Wisconsin results show that the salience of abortion is not fading, and in Chicago, a “tough-on-crime” message fell short.

Confetti rains down on a crowd of people holding up phones and signs supporting Brandon Johnson in Chicago.
An election night party for Brandon Johnson, a progressive mayoral candidate in Chicago who defeated a more conservative Democrat.Evan Cobb for The New York Times

Victories by a liberal judge and a progressive mayoral candidate in two Midwestern states this week offered a glimpse of the mood of the electorate five months after the midterms, and it is a promising one for Democrats.

Janet Protasiewicz, the judge, won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a remarkable margin: 11 percentage points in a state where elections are often decided by one or two. In Chicago, Brandon Johnson, the mayoral candidate, defeated a more conservative Democrat who had run on a crime-focused platform commonly employed by Republicans.

Here are five takeaways from the elections on Tuesday.

The potency of abortion is not fading.

Judge Protasiewicz focused on abortion with laser precision, hammering the message that electing her was the only way to restore access in Wisconsin after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling allowed an 1849 ban to take effect. Democrats cannot overturn that ban in the Wisconsin Legislature, where Republicans hold large majorities thanks to gerrymandering, but the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court can.

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Three political scientists — Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Barry Burden and Kathy Cramer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — cited the potency of abortion as the clear takeaway from the race, which brought not only a lopsided liberal victory (the election was nominally nonpartisan) but also unusually high turnout for a spring election in an off year.

Janet Protasiewicz gives a thumbs up while standing at a lectern with a crowd of supporters behind her.
Wisconsin voters elected Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday night.Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Abortion rights have been a winning issue for Democrats since Roe v. Wade was overturned, including in red states, and the results in Wisconsin show that the effect is not fading. “Abortion is still having legs and energizing and mobilizing the Democratic Party,” Professor Dolan said.

The issue may have had particular resonance for Wisconsinites because of how starkly Dobbs affected them. In many other states where abortion was outlawed after the ruling, it was already functionally inaccessible, but Wisconsin went virtually overnight from four abortion clinics to none.

“It’s the unavoidable issue that’s at the middle of everything,” Professor Burden said.

‘Tough on crime’ has limits.

In Chicago, a deep-blue city in a blue state where abortion remains legal, the dominant issue in the mayor’s race was crime — and the “tough on crime” candidate, Paul Vallas, lost to Mr. Johnson, who walked back his support for cuts to police funding but stood by his position that a fundamentally different approach to public safety was needed.

Mr. Vallas’s campaign “is a very easy campaign to run,” said Christopher Mooney, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago. “You just scare everybody. It’s very effective, historically.”

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Which makes it noteworthy that it didn’t work.

Brandon Johnson, wearing a blue suit, claps his hands and smiles.
Brandon Johnson at his election night party. Mr. Johnson stood by his position that a fundamentally different approach to public safety was needed.Evan Cobb for The New York Times

Political dynamics in a large city cannot necessarily be extrapolated nationally. But Republicans tried to make crime an issue in Wisconsin, too, including by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to tighten cash bail policies — and, while the amendment passed, it did not drive Republican turnout. Nor did Mr. Kelly gain ground by focusing his campaign on crime.

Without Dobbs, crime might have been more salient, Professor Burden said. But the loss of abortion access “puts that issue so far ahead of others,” he said, “it just doesn’t leave room for policing or other things to really compete.”

Democrats are holding strong in battlegrounds, not just cities.

It was not entirely surprising that Chicago would elect a progressive like Mr. Johnson as mayor, or that its voters would reject tough-on-crime talk. In many urban areas, support for police reform is an electoral benefit, not an obstacle, Professor Burden noted.

But Wisconsin showed the breadth of Democratic strength. In the crucial “WOW” counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties, a suburban and traditionally red swath outside Milwaukee — Judge Protasiewicz outperformed historical trends even more than Gov. Tony Evers did in winning re-election last November.

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“She ran up the margins on turnout in the blue areas and really overperformed in a lot of the more conservative areas,” Professor Dolan said.

The same trend was visible in a special election for a State Senate seat in the northern Milwaukee suburbs: While the Republican candidate won, it was a very narrow victory. That is consistent, Professor Cramer said, with the shift of suburban voters nationwide toward Democrats in recent years.

Campaigning still matters.

In Wisconsin, from the moment it became clear that Daniel Kelly would be the conservative who advanced from a primary earlier this year, some Republicans expressed anxiety that he might cost them the election. After all, he had resoundingly lost another Supreme Court race just three years ago.

Mr. Kelly skipped several public forums and ran a mostly negative campaign, Professor Dolan said — factors that might have hurt him. “It’s not like he didn’t have a record of experience on which he could have run, but he didn’t,” she said. “He didn’t build a case for himself.”

In other words, “candidate quality” — which was a concern aired by some Republicans during the midterms as well — still matters.

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Campaign missteps may have contributed to Mr. Vallas’s loss in Chicago too. Mr. Johnson out-organized and out-hustled Mr. Vallas, who spent far more money on the campaign.

“This in many ways came down to Paul Vallas,” said Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who took part in an internet ad for Mr. Johnson.

Concerns about democracy persist.

Judge Protasiewicz’s opponent, Mr. Kelly, was involved in efforts to overturn Wisconsin’s 2020 election on behalf of then-President Donald J. Trump. In the final days of the court race, he also welcomed the support of a conservative activist who was on the grounds of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The results of the midterms made clear that swing voters were repelled by candidates who had embraced Mr. Trump’s election lies, and Mr. Kelly’s loss is one more data point.

Multiple democracy-related issues were at play in Wisconsin, including gerrymandering, which is not on the table in every state. But a broad argument about democracy being under threat on multiple fronts seems to have been effective, and analysts say that is an argument Democrats can make nationwide.

“The sort of general political milieu for the last couple of years has been that we teeter on a knife’s edge,” Professor Dolan said. “At some level, that was enough of a theme in the environment that people may not have gone to the polls to vote against a gerrymandered state legislature, but they had that sense of this race standing between us and lord knows what.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.“

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