Wisconsin voters took a sharp turn to the left in Tuesday's election, electing the first non-incumbent liberal to the state Supreme Court in a generation and voting by a wide margin to keep the state treasurer's office, which conservatives wanted to abolish.
With all precincts reporting, Milwaukee County circuit judge Rebecca Dallet scored a decisive victory over Sauk County circuit judge Michael Screnock. Dallet won 555,196 votes to Screnock's 440,235 votes, or 56 percent to 44 percent.
The margin was even bigger for keeping the state treasurer's office. By a 61-39 percent margin, voters said no to amending the state constitution to get rid of the office that conservatives, including Gov. Scott Walker, say is obsolete.
The election offers up another stark warning to Republicans as the November general election approaches, though it isn't clear the party can do anything at this point to stop what Walker and others are calling a developing blue-wave election.
After losing 800 legislative seats during the Obama presidency, Democrats are piling up victories in special elections and other contests, and they are winning them in red states such as Alabama and in blue-collar Trump country counties, such as in Pennsylvania.
The Wisconsin high-court race was notable for its departure from recent history, too. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, the last time a liberal won an open seat was in 1995 when justice Ann Walsh Bradley was elected.
Voters also seem satisfied to keep paying for an office that has had virtually all of its duties transferred to other agencies, showing they are not particularly in a mood for smaller government.
Gov. Scott Walker took due note of the night's implications, citing on Twitter the possibility of a potential Democratic landslide in November.
"Tonight's results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI," Walker tweeted. "The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred - we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let's share our positive story with voters & win in November."
Walker, who is up for re-election and is considered vulnerable, also warned his supporters he is in the crosshairs and next on the list.
"Big government special interests flooded Wisconsin with distorted facts & misinformation," he tweeted. "Next, they'll target me and work to undo our bold reforms. We need to keep moving #WIForward & make sure a #BlueWave of outside special interest money doesn't take us backward."
Money left, money right
As has been the case in recent Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin, a lot of money was spent on the de facto partisan (but de jure nonpartisan) race, and by special interests on both sides.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which tracked television, radio, and digital ad spending in the race, using data from FCC filings and Kantor Media/CMAG, the candidates themselves had raised $2.3 million as of March 30, matching what candidates raised in Wisconsin's last Supreme Court race in 2016.
That includes totals from Tim Burns, who lost in the February primary. But that was just the beginning of the spending.
"With days to go, the race has already seen $2.6 million in spending on TV and radio ads, including $1.8 million in March alone," the center stated. "There was $3.2 million in TV ads in the 2016 race."
In addition, the center stated, spending by outside groups made up 67 percent of all TV and radio spending in the race, or $1.7 million.
"The groups involved are regular players in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections," the center reported. "Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has spent $939,000 supporting Screnock, more than twice what any candidate has spent on ads, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee has spent $655,000 supporting Dallet."
Attack ads were part of the story, too, as issue groups went after both candidates for decisions in criminal cases, according to storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, the center stated. While attack ads are common in state supreme court races, Brennan stated, the center called it troubling given research showing that election pressures may have an impact on how judges rule in criminal cases.
Candidates and outside groups spent significant sums on online ads, the center continued, totaling at least $338,000, including $165,000 from former attorney general Eric Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee supporting Dallet, according to state campaign finance filings.
"Across the country, partisan attacks on the judiciary threaten its independence," said Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Millions of dollars of opaque outside spending and misleading attack ads only further undermine the public's confidence in its judges."
Erin Grunze, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said Wisconsin's nonpartisan Supreme Court elections are supposed to ensure that justices put law above politics.
"But nearly nonexistent recusal and transparency laws pave the way for outside and secret spending by interest groups that destroy public confidence," Grunze said.
Wisconsin's voters rejected Gov. Scott Walker's advice this past week and voted overwhelmingly to keep the office of the state treasurer.
Liberals had fought to save the office from extinction. They observed that the office was independently elected, and claimed that eliminating it could undermine the distribution of funds to school libraries and loans to school districts to finance improvements.
"Eliminating the independent state treasurer wouldn't just mean Wisconsin would lose its fiscal watchdog, it will also have unintended consequences, like undermining the integrity of state funds that were created to help schools and libraries," One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross said.
Among the duties of the office, Ross said, was helping to oversee the school trust funds. Because the treasurer is not involved in the state budget process run by the governor and the Legislature, it serves as the ideal custodian to protect the integrity of the funds, he said.
"Eliminating our fiscal watchdog is risky and transferring duties to personnel appointed by, or overseen by, the governor's office creates a disconcerting consolidation of power that has the potential to lead to abuse and corruption," he said.
But proponents of elimination had a powerful ally: the state treasurer himself. In an open letter to voters, treasurer Matt Adamczyk called for voters to eliminate his job.
"I know it may seem odd to be advocating for the removal of the very position I hold, but the treasurer's office has outlived its purpose and simply is no longer needed," Adamczyk wrote.
While the position originally did perform a variety of duties, Adamczyk wrote, those were administrative in nature and have subsequently been transferred to other agencies to streamline government and increase efficiency.
"You may think that our state government needs the treasurer as an official financial office, but in Wisconsin the state treasurer simply does not manage financial duties as these have been delegated to other agencies," he wrote.
The last major duty of the treasurer's office was the unclaimed property program, which was moved to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue in 2013, Adamczyk wrote.
"As your current treasurer, I can verify that the office no longer has any significant responsibilities," he wrote. "Currently, I serve only on one board, the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which requires just a few phone calls per month."
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.