KAUKAUNA, Wis. - Nowhere in the country have Republican lawmakers been more aggressive in their attempts to seize a partisan edge than in Wisconsin. Having gerrymandered the Legislature past the point that it can be flipped, they are now pushing intensely to take greater control over the state's voting infrastructure before the 2024 presidential contest.
Two pivotal elections in the coming months are likely to decide if that happens.
The soaring stakes of the first, the November race for governor, became clear last week when Tim Michels, a construction magnate endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican primary.
His victory raised the prospect that Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who has vetoed a range of Republican voting bills, could soon be replaced by a Trump ally who has embraced calls to dismantle the state's bipartisan election commission, invoked conspiratorial films about the 2020 election and even expressed openness to the false idea that Trump's loss can still be decertified.
The second election, an April contest to determine control of the narrowly divided Wisconsin Supreme Court, could be even more important.
This year alone, the court's 4-3 conservative majority has upheld the most aggressive partisan gerrymander of state legislative districts in the country, prohibited the use of most drop boxes for voters returning absentee ballots, and blocked Evers from making appointments to state agencies.
And three of the four conservative justices on the court voted to hear Trump's objections to the 2020 election, which could have led to overturning Wisconsin's results. Joe Biden's 20,000-vote victory in the state stood only because Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative, sided with the court's three liberals.
Electing a liberal justice to replace the retiring conservative, Justice Patience D. Roggensack, would give Wisconsin Democrats an opportunity to enact a host of measures that currently have no shot at passing in the Republican-led Legislature. Bringing new lawsuits through the courts, they could potentially undo the gerrymandered legislative districts; reverse the drop box decision; and overturn the state's 1849 law criminalizing abortion, which went back into effect in June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
Wisconsin's next two elections are inexorably linked. Michels has said that he will seek to change the state's voting laws on his first day as governor. If he is indeed elected and moves quickly, new voting procedures could be in place before a new justice is elected to a 10-year term in April - and the court combined with Michels would have wide leeway to set voting rules for the 2024 presidential election, when Wisconsin is widely expected to again be a central presidential battleground.
"If they're going to cherry-pick things that they know will depress a Democratic vote, it will absolutely impact every Democrat, including Joe Biden," Evers said in an interview Thursday. Referring to Michels, he added, "His election certainly would focus on depressing the vote of Democrats, no question about it."
During the primary campaign, Michels promised to replace the Wisconsin Elections Commission with an agency that would effectively be under the control of Republicans. And while he never explicitly endorsed decertifying Wisconsin's 2020 presidential election, Michels did not rule it out, either, saying enough to appease Trump - who has repeatedly demanded such a move.
At campaign stops and during primary debates, Michels invoked films about the 2020 election that propagate conspiracy theories falsely suggesting that Trump was the real winner. He claimed without evidence that there had been fraud in the state and pledged to prosecute the perpetrators.
"I've seen the movies '2000 Mules' and 'Rigged.' And I'll tell you, I know that there was a lot of voter fraud," Michels said at a recent rally in Kaukauna, a small industrial city in the state's politically swingy Fox Valley. "When I am sworn in as governor, I will look at all the evidence that is out there in January and I will do the right thing. Everything is on the table. And if people broke the law, broke election laws, I will prosecute them."
Since winning the primary Tuesday, Michels has spent less energy highlighting his support from Trump and his focus on election issues. On Wednesday, he removed a declaration about his Trump endorsement from the homepage of his campaign website. After this New York Times reporter pointed it out on Twitter, the Michels campaign resurrected the line on his site.
Michels' campaign aides did not respond to requests for comment.
In perhaps the best illustration of Michels' general-election swivel, he promised attendees at a Trump rally a week ago that "my No. 1 priority is election integrity" - but in his victory speech Tuesday night, he said, "Jobs and the economy are going to be my No. 1 priority."
During a Thursday morning interview on a conservative radio show in Milwaukee, his first media appearance since winning the nomination, Michels also did not mention the 2020 election or his plans to change how voting works in Wisconsin.
Instead, he has sought to remind listeners of what they liked about Trump while tethering Evers to Biden, whose approval rating in Wisconsin was at 40% in June, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. In his first post-primary TV ad, Michels calls Biden and Evers "two peas in a pod."
"Donald Trump was a successful businessman, Donald Trump was tough," Michels said in the radio interview. "I'd gladly compare Joe Biden to Donald Trump."
To what degree Michels might change Wisconsin's election system would be determined in large part by the Republicans who control the Legislature - most of whom supported his opponent in the Republican primary, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, a rare Republican state legislator in Wisconsin who has publicly declared that Trump fairly lost the state's 2020 election, said in an interview last week that during Michels' primary campaign, he had displayed an ignorance about the administration of Wisconsin elections that reflected his lack of government experience.
"Mr. Michels is a fish out of water," said Bernier, who announced her retirement in January after calling for Republican investigations into the 2020 election to end. "When I ran for the Assembly, I, too, had some ideas that weren't workable, but good ideas. He needs some advice and training in all sorts of issues."
Wisconsin's Supreme Court election is one of several in coming months that will effectively determine which party controls the high courts in Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio. But nowhere are the stakes as high as in Wisconsin, given how close its court came to supporting Trump's attempt to subvert the 2020 election.
"The state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin next year is crucial to maintaining a free and fair election system in Wisconsin, and also imperative for maintaining a representative democracy in our national elections," said Jake Faleschini, the legal director for state courts at the Alliance for Justice Action Fund, a liberal organization that focuses on state court elections.
While Evers has presented himself as a human guardrail against a Republican takeover of the state's election system, the Supreme Court election in April will affect the state's voting laws for years.
Two liberal candidates, Janet Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, and Everett Mitchell, a county judge in Madison, have already begun their campaigns. Former Justice Dan Kelly, a conservative appointed by Gov. Scott Walker who lost reelection in 2020, is considering running again but has yet to announce a bid. The candidates will all run together in a single nonpartisan primary in February, with the top two advancing to a general election in April.
"If the more conservative candidate wins, you will have a court that looks a lot like the court now at its most conservative," said Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the conservative legal organization that brought the case that led to the court's ruling prohibiting drop boxes. "If you had a legal progressive win that seat, then obviously there would be significant ramifications there, with the court moving to the left."
Wisconsin Democrats are already envisioning, if they win the election in April and take a 4-3 majority, a political transformation of the state.
"In terms of the ability to change Wisconsin in two years, this could be an utterly different state," said Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator from Madison. "That is our real opportunity to not just stop the bad stuff from happening, but actually restore real democracy and accountability to Wisconsin, things like abortion rights and fair elections where your candidate might actually win."
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