Liberal cruises in Wisconsin court race, and Democrats see hope

Rebecca Dallet stands with daughters Rachel, left, and Ellie as they celebrate her April 3 win against Michael Screnock for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Rebecca Dallet stands with daughters Rachel, left, and Ellie as they celebrate her April 3 win against Michael Screnock for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
(Rick Wood / Associated Press)
Share via

Liberal judge Rebecca Dallet’s runaway victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race cheered Democrats eager for more evidence that their party can expect success in midterm elections this fall.

Dallet’s hammering of conservative judge Michael Screnock on Tuesday prodded GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who had endorsed Screnock, to warn his fellow Republicans that more losses could be coming.

“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” Walker, who is up for reelection in November, tweeted. “Big government special interests flooded Wisconsin with distorted facts & misinformation. Next, they’ll target me and work to undo our bold reforms.”


Although the race was viewed by some as a bellwether, results of past Supreme Court elections have not consistently proved to be predictive of what will happen in November. President Trump won the state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, while Dallet thumped Screnock by double-digits.

Dallet won by nearly 12 points — 56% to 44% — with unofficial results nearly complete. Turnout was 22.2%, the highest for a spring election since 2011 and second-highest over the last 12 Supreme Court elections.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairwoman Martha Laning said the win was a warning shot to Walker, calling it a “huge loss” for him because his “endorsement, philosophy and politics were on the ballot.”

One of the Democratic challengers to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, immediately tried to raise money off the Dallet win. Randy Bryce called the Dallet win “a rallying cry for working folks.” Walker also used the results to raise money.

Dallet’s victory follows a surprising Democratic win in January in a special election for a state Senate seat held by Republicans for 17 years — an outcome that Walker said then was a “wake-up call” for his party.


Two other special legislative elections are coming in June, giving Democrats more chances to build momentum heading into the fall.

The race for a 10-year seat was nonpartisan in name only, with millions in ad spending and public endorsements from the likes of Joe Biden, Eric Holder and the National Rifle Assn.

Dallet said her victory was a rejection of special-interest influence on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.

“The candidate with the most experience in our courts and standing up for the fairness of our courts won,” she said. “I think people are tired of what’s been going on in our state in terms of the money coming in to buy these elections and people spoke out tonight.”

Screnock said he was proud of his campaign, in the face of “tremendous outside influence from liberal special-interest groups that were willing to say and spend anything to elect their preferred candidate to the bench.”

Screnock, a Sauk County circuit judge, was endorsed by Walker and backed by about $400,000 from the state GOP.


Dallet’s victory narrows conservative control of the court from 5-2 to 4-3. She also will become the sixth woman on the court. And it’s the first time a liberal candidate has won a race for an open seat on the court since 1995. The court has been a reliable ally of Walker and Republicans who have controlled the governor’s office and Legislature since 2011.

Voters who supported Dallet said they hoped her win would send a message.

“People are pretty motivated on the left, from what I can see,” said Doug Clawson, 58, a communications professional who cast his ballot at a Madison public library as cold rain fell outside.

He said a Dallet win “would send a message that we’re not kidding around here and maybe to borrow an axiom from the right: We’re going to take our country back.”

Dallet, 48, has been a Milwaukee County circuit judge since 2008 and previously worked 11 years as a prosecutor. She will join the court in August.

Screnock, 48, was appointed judge by Walker in 2015. Before that he was part of a team that defended Walker’s Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.

Both candidates argued the other couldn’t be trusted to serve as an independent voice on the state’s highest court because of the partisans supporting their campaigns.