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What to watch for in the hotly contested Wisconsin and Chicago elections Tuesday

Crime has emerged as the hot issue in the Chicago mayoral runoff, while liberals see a prime opportunity to retake control of the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin.
People cast their votes at a polling station during the election of mayor of Chicago and city council members in Chicago on April 4, 2023.
People cast their votes at a polling station during the election of mayor of Chicago and city council members in Chicago on April 4, 2023.Jacek Boczarski / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Voters will head to the polls Tuesday in a pair of Midwestern elections that are bound to provide clues about a crucial 2024 battleground state and what policy areas big-city residents want the Democratic Party to prioritize.

In the perennial swing state of Wisconsin, voters will choose their next state Supreme Court justice in a race that will determine ideological control of the bench — and with it, the future of crucial issues in the state, including abortion rights. It's turned into a polarizing race that could also serve as an early test for both parties before the 2024 presidential election.

And in the liberal stronghold of Chicago, voters will select their next mayor in a hotly contested runoff between two Democrats that has put on broad display voters’ attitudes about crime and policing, which have come to be defined along racial divides in many ways.

Both races will leave breadcrumbs for national Democrats as the party begins homing in on messaging heading into the 2024 cycle.

Wisconsin Supreme Court election

In Wisconsin, the future of the state Supreme Court is in the balance in a race between liberal Janet Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County circuit judge, and conservative Dan Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who lost his seat in a 2020 election. The result will shape abortion rights in the state, and it could help decide who wins the battleground state in the 2024 presidential election. The contest has become the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history.

The court and its members are technically nonpartisan; conservatives hold a 4-3 majority. But with conservative Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, the majority now hangs in the balance.

There has not been a liberal majority on the court in 15 years, and Democrats see the election as a prime opportunity to shift the balance. The winner is elected to a 10-year term.

Image: Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participate in a debate on March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz and Republican-backed Dan Kelly, at a debate in Madison on March 21.Morry Gash / AP

Abortion has taken center stage. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, a state law from 1849 banning abortion in almost all cases snapped back into effect. The law makes performing an abortion a felony; doctors who perform the procedure face up to six years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. It makes an exception only to save the life of the woman — but not for her health or for a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.

The Democratic governor and attorney general alleged that the law is unenforceable in a lawsuit that is expected to make its way to the state Supreme Court.

Protasiewicz was endorsed by the Democratic abortion rights group Emily’s List, Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and several other prominent Democrats. 

Protasiewicz’s campaign and allied groups massively outspent Kelly’s campaign and conservative groups. The ads supporting Protasiewicz have focused heavily on her support for abortion rights, as well as on attacks on Kelly for having advised Republicans about legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential race through the use of “fake electors.” 

In a deposition to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, former Wisconsin GOP chairman Andrew Hitt said he and Kelly had “pretty extensive conversations” about the plan, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that the Republican Party at the state and national levels had paid Kelly $120,000 to advise them about “election integrity” issues. 

Kelly has repeatedly hit back against the accusations and denies any involvement in the matter. 

Kelly has consistently refrained from saying how he would rule in cases involving abortion; he was endorsed by three groups that oppose abortion rights, and he provided counsel to another Wisconsin group that opposes abortion rights.

In addition to abortion, the state Supreme Court is also very likely to hear challenges to existing election laws and elements of election administration that could have material impacts on close elections — including the 2024 presidential election.

There has been no public polling of the race.

In the final days of the campaign, Kelly crisscrossed the state, holding 17 events from Saturday to Monday in smaller cities and towns.

In an interview last week, Kelly — whom Donald Trump endorsed in his unsuccessful 2020 race — sought to create distance from the former president, saying he was “not looking for” an endorsement this time around.

Protasiewicz fell ill over the weekend and was unable to attend scheduled events in Milwaukee and Madison, campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said. Campaign surrogates attended other events.

In their final ads, both candidates pushed on the importance of impartiality.

Polls close at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Chicago mayoral election

In Chicago, voters will head to the polls in a runoff election for mayor between Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, the former Chicago public schools chief who has previously made unsuccessful runs for the job, as well as for governor and lieutenant governor. The race is technically nonpartisan, but both men have been stressing their Democratic credentials.

The contest between Vallas, a 69-year-old white moderate, and Johnson, a 46-year-old Black progressive, has been a standoff over ideology and their approaches to governance, particularly when it comes to the city’s recent spike in crime. 

Johnson has had to answer for past comments calling to “defund the police,” while Vallas has faced charges that he is too conservative.

Racial divides have also defined the contest in one of the most segregated cities in the country, hinging on the coveted Black vote — a bloc neither candidate won in the first round.  

Recent polling has found the race to be a dead heat.

Vallas was the top vote-getter in the election’s first round in February, winning 33% of the vote, followed by Johnson, at 22%. Mayor Lori Lightfoot won 17%, making her the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose re-election

Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas shake hands after their debate in Chicago on March 18, 2023.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas shake hands after their debate in Chicago on March 18.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Johnson has racked up support from high-profile progressives, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who won 14% of the vote in February when he was running for mayor. The influential Chicago Teachers Union has also backed Johnson. 

Vallas, meanwhile, recently won Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin’s endorsement. He also has the backing of former Gov. Pat Quinn, who picked Vallas as his running mate for his unsuccessful 2014 run, and Arne Duncan, former President Barack Obama’s education secretary.

Other endorsements came from some prominent Black leaders, including Jesse White, the state’s longest-serving secretary of state and its first Black secretary of state, and Democratic former Rep. Bobby Rush.

Vallas was also endorsed by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, whose controversial president, John Catanzara, recently told The New York Times that there would be “an exodus” of police officers and “blood in the streets” if Johnson wins. (Johnson has walked back previous comments that he wants to “defund” the police, and he recently said he would not cut the police budget.)

The two opponents have faced off in multiple televised debates and clashed frequently on the airwaves. One of the Johnson campaign’s most frequent ads attacks Vallas’ handling of the Chicago school system’s finances, hits him for liking offensive tweets and questions his Democratic loyalty. 

Vallas has put significant money behind an ad criticizing Johnson for wanting to “defund the police” and cut the police budget, adding that his policies would prompt tax increases. Overall, from March 1 to Monday, Vallas and outside money supporting him have outspent Johnson 2-to-1 on TV ads, according to AdImpact, an advertising analytics firm.

Polls close at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.