How Wisconsin Republicans Got So Angry

They’ve lost four major statewide elections since 2018, for starters, and this year’s supreme-court election exposed their growing vulnerability.

An illustration of a Wisconsin-shaped hole singed in a piece of paper
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic

Wisconsin Republicans are caught in a bind: What the base wants, the majority rejects. Because they see no way out, they’re angry, and the near future seems extremely volatile.

On Tuesday, Dan Kelly, a conservative, lost the most expensive judicial election in American history to the liberal Janet Protasiewicz, giving progressives a majority on Wisconsin’s high court for the first time in more than a decade. Abortion was clearly an animating issue; Wisconsinites voted for the candidate of the pro-choice movement.

Kelly didn’t go quietly or graciously. “I wish, in a circumstance like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent,” Kelly said Tuesday night, “but I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.” He said the campaign was “the most deeply deceitful, dishonorable, despicable” one he’d ever seen run for the courts, and called his opponent “a serial liar” who “has demeaned the judiciary with her behavior.”

Whatever happened to Wisconsin Nice? Hypocrisy aside—Kelly advised the Republican Party on the fake-elector scheme after the 2020 presidential election, and his campaign peddled allegations that Protasiewicz had engaged in elder abuse 30 years ago, among other “dishonorable” tactics—Kelly’s prickly diatribe may have previewed the next ugly chapter in the state’s polarized politics.

Even before the election, Wisconsin Republicans had openly speculated about the possibility of impeaching and removing Protasiewicz from the bench if she overturned Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban or voted to redraw the state’s gerrymandered legislative map. Duey Stroebel, a Republican state senator, told The New York Times that although impeaching Protasiewicz was unlikely, it was “certainly not impossible.”

“If she truly acts in terms of ignoring our laws and applying her own personal beliefs, then maybe that’s something people will talk about,” Stroebel said. “If the rulings are contrary to what our state laws and constitution say, I think there could be an issue.”

The implication is that Stroebel and his co-partisans, not elected judges, are the real authorities on what the state constitution says. Incidentally, here’s what the state constitution says about impeachment: It requires a simple majority vote in the assembly. Removal from office requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Impeachment is obviously supposed to be rooted in some form of misconduct, but we live in a time of raw politics. And on Tuesday night, with the election of the Republican Dan Knodl, the GOP retained its two-thirds Senate majority. (The assembly wasn’t in play.) Knodl previously said that the legislature’s impeachment power “would certainly be tested” if he won.

How serious is this threat? Legislators I spoke with downplayed the idea, citing Protasiewicz’s double-digit margin. They also noted that in Wisconsin, the Democratic governor could appoint an immediate replacement to the court without having to go through a confirmation process. The exercise would be pointless.

Nevertheless, according to the legislators I interviewed—who requested anonymity to speak freely—some Republicans believe the threat of removal should be “held over her head” as the high court takes up issues such as abortion, redistricting, and Act 10, the Scott Walker–era legislation that stripped public employees of many of their collective-bargaining rights.

Even if Republican leaders ultimately want nothing to do with the chaos that an attempted impeachment would unleash, the wild card is the smoldering rage of the base, which is every bit as angry as Kelly—not to mention Donald Trump. As one of the Republican legislators told me, “It takes only one email from Mar-a-Lago calling us RINOs and asking why we weren’t impeaching her.”

The dynamics of a possible impeachment fight—in which elected Republicans may feel the need to do something futile and chaotic to satisfy the grass roots—speak to the state GOP’s larger problems.

Republicans have lost four major statewide elections since 2018, and this year’s supreme-court election exposed their growing vulnerability, especially on the abortion issue. In a November poll by Marquette University Law School, 84 percent of Wisconsinites—including 73 percent of Republicans polled—said that abortions should be legal in cases of rape or incest.

Accordingly, before the election, leaders of the state assembly tried to craft a bill that would have amended the state’s 1849 abortion ban by including exemptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. But Pro-Life Wisconsin lobbied against the bill, declaring that any legislation that allows abortions “is incapable of being justified.”

“A vote to add more exceptions to Wisconsin’s abortion ban is a vote to kill more preborn babies. It is that simple,” the group’s legislative director, Matt Sande, said in a statement. “It is always and everywhere wrong, regardless of motivation or consequence. It may never be employed, even in the narrowest of circumstances, as a means to a greater end.”

The Senate majority leader said he wouldn’t take up the bill. The amendment process failed, and Republicans failed to shore up their electoral prospects.

Indeed, on Tuesday, in the judicial race dominated by the abortion issue, conservatives lost statewide by more than 200,000 votes, as Democratic turnout surged and GOP margins shriveled in key suburban counties. In the so-called WOW counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington—the abortion issue seems to have accelerated the flight from the GOP. In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush got more than 64 percent of the vote in Ozaukee; this year, Kelly got just 52 percent. Other once-reliably-red counties are turning purple or even blue, which is affecting down-ballot races.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board is sounding the alarm for the GOP nationally, and Republicans in Wisconsin are waking up to the fact that their electoral misfortunes are likely to get worse. “As long as abortion is an issue,” one Republican legislator told me, “we won’t ever win another statewide election.”

No wonder they are so angry.