‘I Am Stunned’: Wisconsin Democrats’ Improbable Victory

A decisive liberal triumph in a hard-fought judicial race eased fears that Republicans would exploit the coronavirus to their advantage.

Morry Gash / AP

Updated at 3:23 p.m. ET on April 14

How could Democrats win a statewide election that they had seemingly conceded—that they had tried in vain to prevent from even taking place?

That was the question in Wisconsin this morning, after the party celebrated the unlikely ouster of a conservative justice in a crucial race for a seat on the state’s highest court. With former Vice President Joe Biden now the presumptive Democratic nominee, following Senator Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the presidential race, the results of the party primary had become moot. The far more consequential race was the judicial election, and Judge Jill Karofsky’s defeat of incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly gave Democrats an important victory—delayed by nearly a week as a deluge of absentee ballots was counted—in what was essentially a trial run for the November election in the closely divided swing state.

But the bigger mystery was how it had happened at all.

In the days leading up to last Tuesday’s vote, Democrats had done all they could to call off in-person balloting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, either by switching to an all-mail election or by postponing the vote until June. Republicans had rebuffed them at every turn, insisting that the election go on as scheduled, even if it meant voters would have to risk their health—and violate a statewide stay-at-home directive—to cast a ballot at the few polling places that had enough workers to staff them. (In Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, just five out of 180 polling places were open.) When Democratic Governor Tony Evers issued a last-minute order to postpone the election, Republicans persuaded conservatives on both the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court to block him.

By the day of the election, Democrats were handcuffed: They had ceased all efforts to turn out voters in person, and it was too late to push more supporters to request ballots by mail.

“We’ll find out if Republicans succeeded in stealing the election by weaponizing the pandemic,” declared Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, on a conference call with reporters before the results were released yesterday. He urged Wisconsinites who may have been disenfranchised to keep records of their attempt to vote, suggesting that they or the party could challenge the legitimacy of the election in court.

A few hours later, fears of a grand electoral larceny had swiftly melted away: Karofsky had won, and with a nearly 11-point margin in a state Donald Trump had carried by less than a single percentage point in 2016, it wasn’t even close.

“I am stunned,” Wikler told me when we spoke by phone shortly before midnight last night. The party’s internal polls had forecast “a close election,” he said—nothing like the relative romp Karofsky had won.

Republicans won a narrow victory in a supreme-court race last year, but the scheduling of this year’s election on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary—when the GOP had no competitive nomination fight to boost turnout—gave Karofsky a significant advantage. The parties had poured money into the judicial race, which would determine whether conservatives would maintain a 5–2 advantage on the supreme court or whether liberals would narrow it to 4–3. The outcome could also have a direct impact on the November election in Wisconsin, since the court appeared divided in a case it will likely have to decide, over whether more than 200,000 voters are dropped from the state’s rolls.

Then came the pandemic, which scrambled everything. The Democrats’ panic over holding the election; the closure of all but five polling places in Milwaukee, where the party has its largest concentration of votes; and the GOP’s insistence that the election go forward gave way to assumptions that Kelly would coast to victory.

“There was an array of very powerful factors blowing in opposite directions,” Wikler said.

Were the Democrats crying wolf over a catastrophe that didn’t happen? Were Republicans actually more disadvantaged by the reduction in in-person voting, because it was their base of older voters who couldn’t get to the polls and was unfamiliar with the requirements for voting by mail? Or did the GOP’s refusal to encourage more participation or postpone the election motivate Wisconsinites to turn out and punish it?

“The Republicans’ effort to suppress turned people out to vote against them,” says Dakota Hall, a Milwaukee activist who runs a group devoted to organizing young voters of color. As for older voters who might have been forced to risk their health to cast a ballot, Hall says: “They conspired against their own base.”

Wisconsin Republicans chalked up Kelly’s loss to the fact that the Democratic presidential primary, which was still nominally competitive, drove a one-sided turnout advantage for Democrats. Andrew Hitt, the state Republican Party chairman, rejected the suggestion that voters had punished Republicans for opposing changes to the election. “The lesson to learn is we can have an election in this scenario,” Hitt told me this afternoon, “and we will be even more prepared to encourage early vote, absentee voting and making sure our people are able to vote” in the fall. He said Republicans had “no problem” with early and absentee voting but opposed Democrats’ push to implement an entirely vote-by-mail system in Wisconsin.

Trevor Potter, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told me this morning that GOP leaders in Wisconsin had made “a tactical mistake” in fostering confusion and chaos in the run-up to the election. “They should learn that chaos is bad,” said Potter, who is also a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, a group trying to protect the November vote from a range of threats. “It’s bad for their voters just as much as the Democratic voters, maybe in Wisconsin more so.”

He noted that the party’s recent opposition to absentee vote by mail—bolstered by denunciations of the format by President Trump—was perplexing given that it has traditionally been an area of strength for Republicans, and particularly for their base of older voters.

Yet even an unexpected victory brought mixed emotions for Democrats. Turnout was higher than it was in 2019, and perhaps higher than feared given the pandemic, but it still fell far short of the turnout for the presidential primary in 2016. Thousands of voters may have been disenfranchised on both sides, and especially in places such as Milwaukee, which is home to 70 percent of Wisconsin’s African American population.

“It was a national disgrace,” Hall told me. He said Milwaukee’s turnout fell off by more than one-third from 2016; while the use of absentee balloting surged across the city and state, it disadvantaged college students and voters of color in particular. “Those numbers are really shocking to me, and I don’t blame people,” Hall said. “They prioritized their health over their vote, which is absolutely fair and valid in this moment.”

Hall did vote—or at least he tried to. He didn’t receive his absentee ballot until the Saturday before the election, six days after he requested it. He doesn’t know if the clerk’s office received it in time. “I’m still wondering if my vote has been cast,” Hall said.

The clear results in the marquee court race brought some relief not to only to Democratic partisans but to voting-rights advocates who feared that a narrow margin would sow distrust in the election system and prompt an even larger court battle over the validity of the outcome. “We’re lucky that democracy didn’t completely fail. It came close to it, unfortunately, in a really serious way,” says Edward Foley, another task-force member, who runs the election-law department at Ohio State University. “But the good news is, it seems the voters, despite all the problems, got the winner that they wanted, and that’s ultimately what matters.”

Foley warns, however, that the results in Wisconsin should not slow momentum in the push for other big swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, to build out their election infrastructure in preparation for a surge of vote-by-mail requests this fall.

“Just because you miss one disaster, because you get lucky, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next one,” he says. “Don’t let the landslide in Wisconsin make you think everything is okay. Every voter who is disenfranchised is wrongly disenfranchised, whether it’s a landslide or not.”