The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Daniel Donner, and Cara Zelaya, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
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● WI Supreme Court: With the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on the line in 2023—and with it the outcomes of future battles over fair elections and abortion rights—the contest to succeed retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack will likely be one of the most consequential elections in any state next year.
Wednesday was the campaign launch date for conservative Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, who recently finished presiding over the high-profile trial where Darrell Brooks was sentenced to life in prison for killing six people at last year’s Waukesha Christmas parade. Dorow joins a field that includes former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who is also a conservative, and two liberal-aligned candidates, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz.
All candidates will compete on the same nonpartisan primary ballot on Feb. 21, and the top two contenders will advance to an April 4 general election alongside local elections throughout much of the state that day. Petitioning to get on the ballot starts on Dec. 1, and the filing deadline is Jan. 4.
Although Supreme Court candidates in Wisconsin don't have partisan labels on the ballot, the ideological fault lines have been clear in recent elections, which have looked very similar to partisan contests. One key difference this time, though, is that each side is fielding two candidates apiece, meaning either progressives or conservatives could snag both spots in the second round of voting.
To avoid such a lockout, both factions may try to consolidate around a single standard-bearer before the primary. One far-right billionaire is already signaling that he'll make his influence felt: Dick Uihlein, who along with his wife Elizabeth was the biggest GOP megadonor nationally in 2022, has indicated he'll spend millions backing Kelly.
The election will be pivotal, and abortion rights tops the list of reasons why. Most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade earlier this year resurrected an 1849 Wisconsin law that makes it a felony to perform an abortion in almost all cases. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who narrowly won re-election in November, has filed a suit seeking to have that 19th century law ruled unenforceable, a case that will likely wind up before the state Supreme Court.
The court has also been central in the battle against GOP voter suppression efforts. In 2020, Kelly was ousted by liberal Judge Jill Karofsky in an election at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that was plagued by exceptionally long voting lines due to the closure of most polling places. The court's conservative majority exacerbated the problem by blocking an executive order by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to delay the election, but Kelly nonetheless lost by a wide 55-45 margin. More recently, the conservative majority ruled in favor of a ban on absentee ballot drop boxes following their widespread adoption in the 2020 elections due to the pandemic.
In addition to restrictions on voting, the court is also critical to the fate of Republican gerrymandering efforts. Heading into the current round of redistricting, Wisconsin's state government was divided, with Evers facing a legislature that Republicans dominated in large part thanks to their previous gerrymanders. When the two parties predictably deadlocked over drawing new congressional and legislative maps, the courts stepped in and took over the process, ostensibly with the aim of drawing neutral lines.
However, in another ruling along ideological lines, the court's conservative majority made up its own requirement that any new maps make only the minimum changes possible when compared to the previous maps, solely to restore population equality. Justice Brian Hagedorn, the lone conservative who is occasionally a swing vote, later sided with his three liberal colleagues to adopt new districts proposed by Evers because they moved fewer residents than GOP proposals did. However, the least-change requirement meant that even the maps proposed by the Democratic governor still heavily favored Republicans compared to their statewide vote share, effectively locking in much of the impact of the prior decade's GOP gerrymanders in all but name.
Wisconsin once again saw the dramatic effects of this rigged redistricting in action this year: Although Evers beat his GOP foe 51-48 and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson turned back his Democratic challenger 50-49, Republicans gained a two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate and fell just two seats shy of one in the Assembly. While Democrats have next to no hope of winning majorities so long as these districts stand, a more independent-minded court could overturn these maps for violating state constitutional protections and order the adoption of fairer maps that more accurately reflect Wisconsin's status as a longtime swing state.
● Why did Democrats do so surprisingly well in the midterms? It turns out they ran really good campaigns, as strategist Josh Wolf tells us on this week's episode of The Downballot. That means they defined their opponents aggressively, spent efficiently, and stayed the course despite endless second-guessing in the press. Wolf gives us an inside picture of how exactly these factors played out in the Arizona governor's race, one of the most important Democratic wins of the year. He also shines a light on an unsexy but crucial aspect of every campaign: how to manage a multi-million budget for an enterprise designed to spend down to zero by Election Day.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard, meanwhile, take a look at how turnout differed between Republicans and Democrats in 2022 (and why it's bad news for the GOP for 2024); why the Republican House majority is the most precarious it's been in a long time; how bonkers conspiracy theorists in a dark-red county in Arizona could flip two major races by refusing to certify their own votes; and a key special election coming up in Wisconsin that could allow Democrats to roll back the GOP's new supermajority in the state Senate.
New episodes of The Downballot come out every Thursday morning. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. You'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● GA-Sen: Senate Majority PAC's Georgia Honor affiliate is deploying another $5.8 million in advertising for the final week of the runoff, and its new spot opens with the narrator proclaiming, "Herschel Walker's violence has hurt so many people." The commercial then plays clips or quotes of both the Republican's ex-wife and son saying he'd threatened to kill them, before the narrator reminds viewers, "An ex-girlfriend says Walker used threats of violence to force her to have an abortion."
Meanwhile, another SMP affiliate, Majority Forward, has announced that it's spending $11 million on a get-out-the-vote effort in partnership with America Votes. Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock is also airing a minute-long ad starring former President Barack Obama, who opens, "Serious times call for special leaders."
● IN-Gov, IN-Sen: Politico's Adam Wren reported Wednesday that Sen. Mike Braun filed paperwork the previous day for a potential run to succeed his fellow Republican, termed-out Gov. Eric Holcomb. Braun, whose seat is also up in 2024, didn't quite commit to a bid to lead the Hoosier State, saying, "We'll talk to you down the road." Braun's chief of staff, though, sounded far more sure about his boss' plans, telling Wren, "Mike Braun has filed his paperwork to run for governor and will be making an official announcement of his candidacy very soon."
There's already plenty of talk about which Republicans could run to replace Braun in the Senate. A spokesperson for Rep. Jim Banks said last week, "He will strongly consider it if Sen. Braun runs for governor in 2024." Politico also reported back in September that fellow Rep. Victoria Spartz had told people she planned to campaign for an open seat.
It's rare for a first-term senator to leave after just one term, though Braun burned his bridges just after the election when he supported NRSC chair Rick Scott's failed effort to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's also fairly unusual for members of the upper chamber to campaign for governor, where most states have term limits for their chief executives.
Indeed, the University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier last year found that just three sitting senators have been elected governor during the 21st century, with Kansas Republican Sam Brownback pulling this off most recently in 2010. Louisiana Republican David Vitter also tried this career switch in 2015, but the scandal-ridden senator lost to Democrat John Bel Edwards in a true upset.
● NJ-07: NJ Spotlight News this week asked outgoing incumbent Tom Malinowski if he planned to seek another bout against Republican Rep.-elect Tom Kean Jr., to which the Democrat responded, "I'm going to stay very very interested in the fate of our district, New Jersey, and the fight for democracy in America. I haven't decided how I'm gonna do that, but I'm certainly not going anywhere." Kean unseated Malinowski 52-48 in a constituency that Biden won 51-47.
● VA-04: Several Democrats aren't ruling out running in the upcoming special election to succeed the late Rep. Donald McEachin, though they're understandably reluctant to say much this soon after the congressman's death. It also remains to be seen how Democrats will choose their nominee for this safely blue Richmond-based seat.
Del. Lamont Bagby told 8News of McEachin, whom he's called a father or brother figure, "I think it's a little too soon to talk about it, but there is no secret I've always wanted to follow in my big brother's footsteps." Fellow Del. Jeff Bourne likewise relayed that he was still "trying to process the immense loss of such a wonderful father, husband and public servant."
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who succeeded McEachin in the legislature, responded, "We're mourning him right now and that is a conversation that probably will be had eventually but I'm not prepared to have it right now." A spokesperson for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also declared that a special election bid "is not on the Mayor's mind at all right now."
Finally, state Sen. Joe Morrissey, who has long been one of the most unreliable Democrats in the legislature in between two different stints as an independent, said, "It's way too premature for me to say yay or nay." Morrissey, though, sounded happy where he is as the key vote in Team Blue's 21-19 majority, adding, "I will say this. I love being in the [state] Senate. I love being able to do something substantive for Virginia, and I'm not so sure that being one of 435 members would allow me to be as effective."
Mayors and County Leaders
● Denver, CO Mayor: State Rep. Alex Valdez this week became the latest candidate to enter the ever-expanding April 4 nonpartisan primary to succeed Mayor Michael Hancock, a fellow Democrat who cannot seek a fourth term. "The next mayor must be able to bring progressives and moderates together to solve challenges," said Valdez, who previously founded a solar energy company.
Valdez, like several other contenders in what's now a 22 person-field, would be the second Latino elected to lead Colorado's capital and largest city; the first was Federico Peña, who won the first of his two terms in 1983. Valdez would also be the Denver's first gay mayor, a distinction he'd share with fellow state Rep. Leslie Herod.
● Philadelphia, PA District Attorney: The state Senate will begin its trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a leading criminal justice reformer whom the outgoing GOP majority in the state House voted to impeach two weeks ago, on Jan. 18, which is after the new legislature takes office. It would take 34 senators to hit the two-thirds majority needed to remove Krasner, and since Republicans will only control 28 of the 50 seats next year, they'd need at least six Democrats to side with them.
That's a tough task, though, especially since just one Democrat, Jimmy Dillon, sided with the GOP on Tuesday on a pair of votes setting the rules for the trial. Potentially complicating things further is the fact that Republican John Gordner resigned this week halfway through his term in order to become counsel to state Senate Interim President Pro Tempore Kim Ward.