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Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., celebrates her re-election victory in Madison on Nov. 6, 2018.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., celebrates her re-election in Madison in 2018.Steve Apps / Wisconsin State Journal via AP file

Wisconsin court race sets stage for 2024 in key swing state

"Our side hasn't come up with a clear strategy" on abortion, a top Wisconsin GOP official said ahead of the presidential race and a major Senate contest.

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Liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s decisive Wisconsin Supreme Court victory has sent both parties racing to dissect the implications for 2024, when the Badger State will play a crucial role in battles for the White House and the Senate. 

The lopsided results show just how powerful abortion remains as a salient campaign issue, as well as delivering another reminder that Democratic fundraising can swamp Republicans on the airwaves. 

Wisconsin is a key state next year as Democrats look to hold onto the White House and the Senate, where they currently have a slim majority. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is expected to announce soon that she is running for a third term, according to a Wisconsin Democratic operative.

And Protasiewicz’s victory has Democrats feeling optimistic about their prospects next year. She won by 11 points and posted strong margins across the state — not just in the suburban counties around Milwaukee where Democrats have made gains, but also in blue-collar areas in the northeastern part of the state where Republicans had made recent inroads.  

“This margin sent my jaw to the floor,” Ben Wikler, the Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman, told NBC News.

But campaign strategists in both parties still expect next year’s contests to be tight. 

“We’re not a plus-11 Democratic state,” said Wisconsin Democratic strategist Mike Tate, a former state party chairman, referring to Protasiewicz’s margin of victory. “We are a state where an overwhelming majority of voters said the right has overreached and we’re more comfortable over here right now.”

Abortion clearly drove voters towards Democrats, with the state’s 19th-century abortion ban at stake in the court race. Protasiewicz centered her campaign on abortion, launching ads telling voters that conservative candidate Dan Kelly would uphold the ban, while Kelly focused on other issues. 

“We allowed the abortion issue to go unanswered,” said Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, adding, “Our side hasn’t come up with a clear strategy on that issue.”

Protasiewicz’s campaign started running ads calling Kelly extreme days after the February primary, spending over $1.2 million on campaign TV ads in the first 10 days of the general election, while Kelly stayed off the airwaves, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm.

Only one pro-Kelly outside group, Fair Courts America, was up on the airwaves by that point, spending $965,000. Kelly did not launch TV ads until March 17, over three weeks after Protasiewicz went up on the air, which Jefferson and other GOP strategists described as a major setback.

“When we allow their attacks and lies about us to become truth because we don’t challenge them, we lose,” he said.

Jefferson said the party’s Senate nominee can’t repeat that mistake.

“You have to run a strong, sustained effort from start to finish. You can’t go black on TV for weeks on end,” he said.

Other GOP strategists also pointed to candidate quality as a problem for the party.

Kelly lost his seat on the court in a 2020 election, winning just 45% of the vote in that year. He failed to grow his vote share this year, again winning just under 45% of the vote.

While Republicans are confident they can field a strong Senate candidate to take on Baldwin, one GOP strategist in Wisconsin suggested the court race could hurt recruitment, given that Baldwin is a formidable candidate and Democrats clearly have a robust turnout operation. 

"If you’re running against that, you would kind of have to make the calculation that you’re okay being a sacrificial lamb, or something nationally is going to change between now and 2024,” the strategist said. 

Multiple Republicans are weighing runs against Baldwin next year, including Rep. Mike Gallagher, businessmen Scott Mayer and Eric Hovde and controversial former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, per GOP sources. Both Mayer and Hovde, who lost the GOP Senate primary in 2012, could self-fund their campaigns. 

No matter who runs, some Republicans see the state Supreme Court race as a warning sign ahead of 2024.

“It is a wake up call to the Republicans that they’re going to have to change the game,” said Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “They can’t keep doing business as usual.”