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Janet Protasiewicz won Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, giving liberal justices majority

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, a lot more people outside the state of Wisconsin are learning the name Janet Protasiewicz. Yesterday, she won the most expensive judicial race in American history. It was for an open seat on Wisconsin's Supreme Court. Well, that result will give liberal justices a 4-3 majority on a court that is likely to hear challenges to a state abortion ban and to legislative district maps drawn by Republicans. The NPR Politics Podcast talked this through today. Here are correspondents Susan Davis, Kelsey Snell, and you'll hear first Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There was money pouring in from way outside of the state of Wisconsin, and the candidate who was aligned with the Democratic Party and Democratic values said openly that she was pro-choice, that she supported abortion rights, that she would consider revisiting the state's congressional district lines and state district lines that have been highly controversial. That candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, won - and not by a little bit. She won by more than 10 points, defeating Daniel Kelly, who was more aligned with Republicans, campaigned at GOP headquarters and had connections to former President Trump's efforts to overturn the election results in 2020.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: We need to just stick with abortion as an issue in this race, I think in particular, because it seemed to be such a central focus of the race. I read a fascinating data point that Protasiewicz spent a third of her ad dollars focusing on the issue of abortion. You know, in 2022, it resonated with voters in a way that I think some voters weren't even anticipating. It clearly remains an issue. I mean, Tam, are Democrats seeing this race as abortion is an issue that they should continue to campaign on and campaign on hard going into 2024?

KEITH: Let me just tell you, as I was in Wisconsin right before the election, I went and interviewed voters. Now, admittedly, I was interviewing voters at a student union at the University of Wisconsin. So, you know...

DAVIS: Reliably Democratic.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Reliably - yes, turnout was quite high in reliably Democratic parts of the state. That's how you win. And what I heard again and again and again was that abortion was a very important, motivating issue. And it was particularly motivating in this race because after the Dobbs decision, something called the 1849 law kicked in, which is a ban on abortion in the state, and that is inevitably going to come before the state Supreme Court.

DAVIS: And it effectively outlaws abortion in the state right now.

KEITH: Yes. And that means that abortion is an incredibly live issue in the state of Wisconsin. And the reality is it's an incredibly live issue in many states in the United States. And even if people say their top issue is the economy or they're not happy about the economy, they're not happy about this or that, the thing that they, it seems, care about most if they support abortion rights, the thing that makes them go to the polls is abortion. Sue, I want to ask you, last fall, there was also a Senate race. It pitted a more progressive Democrat named Mandela Barnes against the incumbent, Ron Johnson, who's a very conservative Republican. And Ron Johnson won. He won by about one point. It was a close race, but he won. And now not even a full year later, you have, Janet Protasiewicz winning by more than 10 points. So what gives?

DAVIS: I think, structurally, there's a couple of things. It's always harder to beat an incumbent than it is to win an open-seat race, which is what Tuesday's race was. I think in a state like Wisconsin, you know, there's always probably going to be a race element to some of these elections. Mandela Barnes was a Black man. He ran very hard to the left. And I think that that could have been a factor as well. So it's hard to say.

One thing that I'm also curious about Wisconsin is it's got a lot of working-class voters, right? Like, this is a type of voter that had been in the Democratic Party for a long time, have increasingly been moving closer to the Donald Trump wing of the party, but also a group of voters that supports abortion rights, especially blue-collar women. And if you're talking about a swing voter on an issue, there's a lot of blue-collar women who do not want abortion bans. And in a state like Wisconsin, that could be a really potent political force. And I think that's something we're probably going to hear a lot more about going into 2024.

Tam, I also wonder if you think that you see this race as possibly a new front in sort of the war of judicial elections. The Democratic Party hadn't really focused on judicial races with the same level of intensity that Republicans had, certainly in the pre-Dobbs era. And it seems like we might be entering a new chapter here for the Democratic Party.

KEITH: Now, not every state has judicial races. Many justices in many states are appointed, but there are states with elected judges, and Wisconsin is one of them. And in the past, candidates that were aligned with Democrats for judicial positions in the state of Wisconsin didn't really, like, shout that from the rooftops. They - you know, they just ran as like, I'm going to be a carefully considered judge. And then something changed.

SNELL: Well, not just in Wisconsin. That's generally how judicial races have gone.

KEITH: In this case, it's very clear that the veil was off. Like, everybody knew exactly where Janet Protasiewicz stood when they went to vote for her. And in a way, that means people are able to make more informed decisions. But also it does sort of change, I think, the way people view the judiciary, though the fact is from the Supreme Court on down, I think the way people view the judiciary has changed a lot in the last 20 to 25 years.

KELLY: That was NPR's Tamara Keith, Kelsey Snell and Susan Davis. And for more, check out the NPR Politics Podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.