Although there are some other newsworthy events taking place that day, Tuesday is also Election Day — at least in a few states. There are two high-profile contests: In Wisconsin, a critical race for state Supreme Court will decide if liberals or conservatives will have the judicial upper hand, and in Chicago, the city will elect its next mayor. A handful of other interesting races are also on the ballot, including a special election for a seat in Wisconsin’s state Senate and the first round of Denver’s mayoral election.
FiveThirtyEight will be covering these races tomorrow night, focusing primarily on Wisconsin’s judicial election and the Chicago mayoral contest. Nathaniel Rakich will have a much more in-depth look at Chicago’s political and racial makeup in an article tomorrow, so today, let’s start by taking a deeper look at Wisconsin.
While it’s ostensibly nonpartisan, the race between conservative former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz couldn’t be more partisan in actuality. As it stands, the court is divided 4-3 in favor of its conservative wing, but the retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack has left the court’s ideological balance up for grabs. And with control of the court on the line, this election is the most expensive state Supreme Court election in U.S. history.
Money is pouring into the highly consequential race, as the fate of abortion access in Wisconsin, GOP-friendly congressional and state legislative maps and potentially even the administration of the 2024 election all hinge on the outcome. Last summer, a 19th-century abortion ban took effect in Wisconsin after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and although Democratic state Attorney General Josh Kaul said the law is unenforceable, abortion providers stopped offering abortions throughout the state. A lawsuit challenging the ban has been winding its way through the courts and could reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court sometime this year. Neither candidate has said how they’d rule in the case, but their stances on abortion rights aren’t hard to guess at — Protasiewicz has the endorsements of leading abortion-rights groups, while Kelly has worked for some of the state’s top anti-abortion advocacy organizations.
Meanwhile, another legal battle could emerge over Wisconsin’s congressional and state legislative maps. Currently, Republicans dominate the state legislature, just a few votes shy of a legislative supermajority that would allow them to override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s veto. Republicans also hold six of the state’s eight congressional seats. But that political power is built on maps that were drawn to favor conservative candidates — and a state Supreme Court controlled by liberals might be open to new litigation challenging those maps.
And in Wisconsin, where an appointed election commission administers and enforces election law, the state Supreme Court can also play a large role in helping determine how people vote. In 2022, for example, the court ruled that ballot drop boxes aren’t allowed in the state. That power over election administration is particularly potent during presidential election years, when Wisconsin often plays a pivotal role. In 2020, a narrowly divided Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit from former President Donald Trump attempting to overturn his loss in the state.
The race’s many ads have mostly focused on the same issues we saw in the 2022 midterms: abortion and crime. Nearly half of all ads have touched on abortion, according to Wisconsin Watch, mostly because Protasiewicz has routinely highlighted her support for abortion rights. In the final weeks of the campaign, Protasiewicz has also sought to emphasize her impartiality in judicial decisions, as the two candidates attacked each other for being partisan mouthpieces in their lone debate on March 21. Kelly and his allies, meanwhile, have played up Kelly’s support from law enforcement and argued that Protasiewicz has been too lenient in sentencing.
Looking at the tea leaves, Protasiewicz likely has at least a slight edge, but we don’t have much polling to go on. The lone survey to cross our transom came from OnMessage Inc., a GOP pollster, which gave Protasiewicz just a 2-percentage point lead on March 21, well within the poll’s margin of error. However, the poll’s sponsor was the Kelly-supporting Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce association, and partisan polls historically have overstated their preferred candidate’s standing by a few points.
But we do know that Protasiewicz has substantially outraised Kelly between Feb. 7 and March 20, $12.4 million to his $2.2 million. She was aided by the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s redirection of millions from megadonors like George Soros and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But Kelly has also received backing from wealthy conservatives, albeit mainly through outside spending: Since the primary, the Fair Courts America super PAC (largely funded by megadonor Richard Uihlein) and the WMC Issues Mobilization Council have spent nearly $7 million on ads backing Kelly. But as of last Wednesday, Protasiewicz and her allies had spent a combined $14.3 million on ads versus $11.9 million by Kelly and his allies, according to AdImpact. And liberals have gotten more bang for their buck: Television ads purchased by campaigns cost one-third the rate as ads purchased by outside groups, and Protasiewicz’s campaign has forked out about three-fourths of pro-Protasiewicz ad spending, whereas Kelly’s campaign has contributed less than one-tenth of pro-Kelly TV money.
The Feb. 21 all-party primary may also portend a liberal advantage. Together, Protasiewicz and another liberal candidate won 54 percent of the vote to the 46 percent garnered by Kelly and another conservative contender. Just how telling that is remains to be seen: Since 2008, liberal judicial candidates in Wisconsin have tended to gain ground in April general elections, but the partisan swing has varied. Still, the good news for liberals is that tomorrow’s electorate may look more like the primary electorate than in past years: Almost 22 percent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot in the primary, the highest spring primary turnout in recent times. By comparison, April turnout in a judicial election has only surpassed 36 percent of the VEP when the race coincided with a presidential primary that was still competitive for both parties, in 2016.
Turnout in Wisconsin’s judicial elections varies
Voter turnout and margin between all liberal and all conservative candidates combined in contested Wisconsin Supreme Court primaries since 2008, compared with the results in the subsequent general election
There are three additional statewide referenda on Wisconsinites’ ballots on Tuesday that conservatives may hope could drive greater Republican turnout and boost Kelly’s chances. If passed, two constitutional amendments would widen the definition of what can qualify a defendant as risking “serious harm” to the public and expand the criteria judges use to decide cash bail. Both Protasiewicz and Kelly have endorsed the amendments. Additionally, voters will decide on a non-binding referendum that asks whether childless adults who can work should be required to seek employment to qualify for welfare benefits.
There’s also a special election for Wisconsin’s state Senate of note. Currently, the GOP holds a 21-11 edge in the chamber, so a Republican win in the vacant 8th District would give them a two-thirds majority in the chamber. (Republicans lack a two-thirds majority in the state House, so the GOP-controlled legislature wouldn’t have full override power even if they win here.) Republican state Rep. Dan Knodl faces Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin, and Knodl is favored in a seat in the northern Milwaukee suburbs where Trump would have won 52 percent of the vote in 2020. Still, the race could be pretty competitive: Habush Sinykin outraised Knodl more than three-to-one between Feb. 7 and March 20.
The choice for voters in Chicago’s mayoral election between former city budget director Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson couldn’t be starker. Vallas, who is white, has worked in many cities — including Chicago — as a charter-school-supporting education executive, and he has the backing of the Chicago police union. Johnson is a Black progressive who’s been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union — he’s a former public school teacher and has been an organizer for the CTU — and who previously backed diverting funds from the police to social services. The winner will succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who finished third in the crowded Feb. 28 primary with 17 percent of the vote, behind Vallas (33 percent) and Johnson (22 percent).
Unlike in Wisconsin, we have a few polls here. They suggest it’s going to be a close race that slightly favors Vallas. A survey from Emerson College/WGN-TV/The Hill released last week gave Vallas a 6-point lead, 53 percent to 47 percent, after asking undecided voters which candidate they leaned toward. Two slightly earlier surveys from Victory Research (a GOP pollster) and BSP Research/Shaw & Co. Research/Northwestern University found a tighter race, with the former giving Vallas only a 2-point edge and the latter finding the two candidates tied at 44 percent. There’s little doubt that public safety is top of mind for voters: About half of all voters in the Emerson and Northwestern surveys named crime as the most important issue in this election.
Vallas has a clear fundraising edge in this race. Since early March, Vallas has brought in just shy of $11 million while Johnson has raised $5.8 million. While Vallas has the backing of many Chicago business leaders, including the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Johnson’s backing comes predominantly from labor unions, especially the CTU. Vallas has run ads highlighting his focus on lowering crime, while arguing that Johnson wants to “defund the police” and raise tax rates. For his part, Johnson has argued Vallas damaged Chicago schools’ finances in the 1990s and has questioned Vallas’s commitment to the Democratic Party. Looking to shore up his Democratic bona fides and appeal to Black voters, Vallas has played up endorsements from former six-term Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who is Black, and other high-profile pols like Sen. Dick Durbin.
Each of these races has at least a mild favorite, but there’s still plenty of room for surprises. So make sure to join us on Tuesday for FiveThirtyEight’s live blog, where we’ll cover all the ins and outs of the April 4 electoral picture.