MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Rebecca Dallet, a liberal Milwaukee judge, easily defeated conservative Michael Screnock on Tuesday in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, fueling optimism among Democrats for more victories in the fall midterms.
The win in the first statewide general election in the country this year forced Gov. Scott Walker, who endorsed Screnock, to warn his fellow Republicans.
“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” Walker, who is up for re-election 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.”
Walker followed up that tweet with, “If you support our bold efforts to help families and reform government, I need your help right now. CHIP IN $5 and help us stand against the flood of outside money that is headed our way.”
Although the race was viewed by some as a bellwether, results of past Supreme Court elections have not consistently proven to be predictive of what will happen in November. President Donald Trump won the state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, while Dallet thumped Screnock by double digits.
She won by a nearly 12-point margin with 87 percent of precincts reporting, based on unofficial results.
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 Association.
Dallet said her victory, which Democrats quickly seized on as another sign of momentum, 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.”
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.”
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’s victory follows a surprising Democratic win in January in a special election for a state Senate seat held by Republicans for 17 years. Two other special legislative elections are coming this June, giving Democrats more chances to build momentum heading into the fall.
Dallet, 48, has been a Milwaukee County circuit judge since 2008 and before that was a prosecutor for more than a decade. 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.
Several voters in liberal Madison said they were motivated to vote against Screnock because of his NRA support.
“I don’t want to support anyone who’s backed by the NRA right now,” said Phil Ouellette, 59, who works in advertising.
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.
Dallet ran with a tough-on-crime message, focusing on her 11 years as a prosecutor followed by 10 years as a judge in Milwaukee. She argued that the current conservative-controlled Supreme Court is “broken,” and she criticized the justices for not adopting a recusal rule forcing them to step down from cases involving large campaign donors.