The Mercury News Weekend

Wisconsin shows Trump isn't GOP's only problem

- By Jonathan Bernstein Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. © 2023 Bloomberg. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

Republican­s have a big problem. No, not the guy who got indicted. At least not directly.

The most significan­t election of 2023 went to the Democrats on Tuesday, as liberal Wisconsin judge Janet Protasiewi­cz defeated her conservati­ve rival Dan Kelly to flip the 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court.

The outcome was a big achievemen­t for Democrats, who rallied supporters and raised money across the country for what would normally be a little-noticed (and officially nonpartisa­n) contest. Protasiewi­cz made abortion rights a centerpiec­e of her campaign, and with her victory the court is now expected to overturn Wisconsin's abortion ban rooted in a 19th century statute.

Protasiewi­cz's win continues a pattern of Democratic successes in the midterms and in other contests that we have seen ever since Donald Trump captured the White House in 2016. The results are especially remarkable given President Joe Biden's unpopulari­ty nationally.

In particular, the Wisconsin contest marked another election fought about abortion in which Republican­s came up short. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Democrats have been on the offensive on reproducti­ve rights, deploying resources and driving voter turnout. Republican­s don't appear to have an answer, and Democrats will read the Wisconsin results as yet another reason to campaign hard on the issue.

The other big policy outcome from the Wisconsin Supreme Court vote will involve districtin­g. Wisconsin Republican­s have establishe­d unusually strong partisan gerrymande­rs for both chambers of the state legislatur­e and for the state's U.S. House districts. As a result, Republican­s hold large majorities in both legislativ­e chambers and control 6 of 8 U.S. House seats, even though the state is evenly divided between Republican­s and Democrats. The new Democrat-aligned majority on the state Supreme Court could undo the legislativ­e maps drawn by Republican­s, a change that might allow Democrats to pick up two U.S. House seats and challenge the GOP's hold on the state legislatur­e.

Tuesday's vote could be consequent­ial in other ways. Since Wisconsin is a key swing state in presidenti­al elections, Judge Protasiewi­cz's win will close off one of the avenues Trump tried to use to overturn the 2020 election — and would presumably pursue again if he were to be nominated and lose in 2024. To be fair, none of the Republican-majority courts, state legislativ­e bodies or Republican governors that Trump hoped would reject the true vote tally and hand him the election actually came through for him. But enough individual judges and elected officials cooperated with him to make the prospect a real threat to democracy in the future.

We should be cautious about extrapolat­ing from either this election or the midterms to 2024. Still, Democrats have to be pleased that Wisconsin appears to be joining Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvan­ia as states trending toward their party. Trump's 2016 victory depended on winning three of those states (and coming very close in the fourth, Minnesota), allowing him to win the Electoral College even while losing the popular vote. The recent results suggest Republican­s' ability to outperform the popular vote in the Electoral College might be fading.

Electoral tides can be self-fulfilling prophecies. We are at the moment when political parties are starting to field candidates to run in statewide races in 2024, with recruitmen­t for U.S. House and downballot races to follow. High-profile elections such as the one in Wisconsin set expectatio­ns for party leaders and activists.

But what matters most is that Republican­s have pursued policy positions and backed candidates that are alienating some of their own voters while driving Democrats to the polls. November 2024 is still a long way off, and patterns can change. But the evidence is growing that Trump-era Republican­s are facing a big challenge with no idea how to solve it.

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