Between now and when Wisconsin voters go to the polls next on April 5, the rest of the country will probably pick some of our winners and losers for us. The national presidential primary will be what does it.
This is new territory for Wisconsin. In 2008 and before, the presidential primary was held on the same day as the spring election primary, in February, rather than in concert with the spring general. In 2012, after the presidential primary had been moved to April, there was no Supreme Court race and fewer hotly contested Milwaukee races – Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele faced no serious opposition.
Consider the state Supreme Court race this year, though. In the primary last Tuesday, incumbent Rebecca Bradley eked out a plurality of votes, but the majority of voters opted for one of her two challengers. This has to be worrisome to Bradley and her conservative supporters; it’s been years since any court incumbent has failed to get a majority of the primary votes.
However, imagine a scenario where Hillary Clinton – who is currently favored to win the South Carolina primary this weekend and most of the Super Tuesday states next week – has the Democratic Party’s nomination wrapped up before April 5, and Bernie Sanders has conceded and dropped out of the race. Democratic voters here in Wisconsin will have no incentive to vote in the presidential primary and, despite the local races on the ballot, may stay home.
In that case, Bradley’s path to victory gets much easier. Conservative and Republican voters are more likely to vote in off-year and non-partisan elections anyway, and without a mobilized liberal bloc of Sanders or Clinton supporters, Bradley could find herself winning in a cakewalk, especially if the Republicans are still trying to pick a presidential nominee from among frontrunners Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
But the opposite scenario is just as likely, since Sanders has been closing the gap against Clinton and may well poll better than expected in the March contests, making a real race out of it. On the Republican side, Trump is winning big, and though the GOP field is thinning out, as I write, no one alternate candidate is clearly emerging to beat him. If Trump runs the table on Super Tuesday, the GOP contest will probably be over then.
If that happens, it will could be farewell Justice Bradley and hello Justice JoAnne Kloppenburg, as Clinton’s and Sanders’ galvanized voters will overwhelm Bradley’s conservative base.
The same kind of thing will play out locally in Milwaukee. Think about the race for mayor, where there is a clear partisan divide between former Democratic congressman Tom Barrett and the archly conservative Bob Donovan. While it’s true Barrett, like Bradley, was held under 50 percent in the primary, I can’t imagine more than a relative handful of Milwaukee’s majority Democratic voters will support Donovan in the April election.
But what if there’s no real Democratic primary left, while the Republican one is still heated? Then all bets are off, as the city’s Democrats may stay home in greater numbers while every Republican in town comes out to vote.
On the other hand, if the Democratic race is still on and the Republicans are finished, Barrett may end up with 75 percent or more of the vote (all else being equal, I’m predicting a 60/40 Barrett win).
County Executive Chris Abele, a nominal Democrat, will undoubtedly earn the votes of Milwaukee County’s more conservative voters against Chris Larson, who for a time was the firebrand leader of the Democratic caucus in the Wisconsin State Senate. Larson slightly outpolled Abele in last week’s primary.
Again you can imagine how what’s happening – or not – in the state’s presidential primary can affect the county executive race as well. There probably aren’t many Trump-Larson voters, but Trump-Abele ticket-splitters could make a huge difference if the Sanders-Larson voters stay home after Sanders drops out.
To be fair, there are other, more local things that will undoubtedly influence the results too. For instance, there are several hotly contested aldermanic races, like the one between current school board President Michael Bonds and current County Supervisor Khalif Rainey, that will bring out voters regardless of the state of the presidential race. For the most part, those contests help Barrett and Larson, as it seems just as unlikely that voters will split their tickets Bonds-Abele or Rainey-Donovan as Clinton-Donovan or Sanders-Abele.
And I guess it’s entirely possible that both party’s presidential primaries will be decided by April 5, leaving only the local races and the Bradley-Kloppenburg match-up to draw voters to the polls.
The smart money, though (well, my money, anyway), is on at least one of the parties’ contests to still be going strong when the spring election rolls around. We just have to wait until Super Tuesday to see which.