MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) — One of the most consequential statewide elections is Tuesday and there’s a lot at play, including the fate of abortion laws in Wisconsin, but it could mark the end of Republicans’ dominance over local and congressional races.
For over a decade, Republicans have held onto their strong majority in the state Legislature due to their ability to draw district lines to their liking, giving them an edge, and it’s those lines Democrats are eager to change, which could have major implications heading into the 2024 elections.
It will all come down to who wins the state Supreme Court contest between Dan Kelly, who’s backed by Republicans, and liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz. The race is a battle for control of the court, which currently leans conservative 4-3, and it’s the most expensive matchup in U.S. history with record campaign spending.
With a Protasiewicz victory, it would give liberals an opportunity to redraw state and congressional district maps that are widely characterized as the most gerrymandered in the country.
“There is literally almost nothing that has more long-term policy consequences than gerrymandering,” said Howard Schweber, associate professor of political science and legal studies at UW-Madison.
Democrats and their allies are almost certain to file a new challenge to the maps after the Supreme Court sided with Republicans in a redistricting dispute in 2022 where the court adopted a “least change” approach that largely kept the district lines largely intact, maintaining a Republican advantage.
A set of new maps could not only give Democrats a shot of reducing or flipping Republicans’ majority in the Assembly and Senate, but also the U.S. House of Representatives where Republicans hold a slim majority.
“It’s entirely possible that Derrick Van Orden’s [a Republican who represents Wisconsin’s third congressional district] district could be redrawn, along with others,” said Anthony Chergosky, an associate professor of political science at UW-La Crosse. “The 6-2 advantage that Republicans enjoy in the House of Representatives in Wisconsin could change potentially in the future.”
Out of the eight congressional districts in Wisconsin, four are deemed safe Republican seats and two lean heavily Democratic. However, Chergosky says the remaining two districts in the La Crosse and Green Bay areas could become more comparative if the maps are redrawn.
The 2024 presidential election is also on the line as the state Supreme Court could decide the fate of voting laws and potential challenges to the results.
After the 2020 election, the state’s high court rejected then-President Donald Trump’s lawsuit seeking to overturn his loss to Joe Biden. In the 4-3 ruling, swing Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative, sided with liberals on the case.
In an evenly divided state that often decides elections by one or two percentage points, political experts predict if a similar challenge is filed after the 2024 election, it could produce a different outcome if Kelly is elected to the bench.
In 2020, Kelly was endorsed by Trump in his unsuccessful reelection bid to the state’s high court. The former president has not endorsed Kelly this year as he’s tried to distance himself from Trump and other GOP-backed groups supporting his campaign.
Throughout his campaign, Kelly has consistently bashed his opponent for openly discussing her support for reproductive rights and calling the state maps “rigged” instead of talking about how she might rule on key issues that are likely to come before the court.
However, Kelly does have ties to anti-abortion groups and the Republican National Committee after he previously worked for them providing legal advice.
While it’s a nonpartisan race, the candidates are linked to their respective political parties.
Protasiewicz has centered her campaign around abortion access and creating a “fairer” map that allows Democrats to compete in more legislative races.
Both campaigns are taking a much different approach to the race, which Chergosky said will be a test to see what motivates swing voters in a judicial election.
“Is it hot button issues and an abortion law that seems to be unpopular with the voters or is it more a traditional view of what a judge should do, meaning a judge should not talk about issues,” said Chergosky.