- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2023

Wisconsin voters know how quickly life can change in the wake of an election. In 1970, Republicans controlled both houses of the state Legislature and the governorship. Richard Nixon was in the White House. Although two Democrats, William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, most observers put the state safely in Republican hands absent a political earthquake.

I was there when that earthquake rumbled through Wisconsin on Election Day that November when Democrats swept the board. Republicans had controlled nearly three-quarters of the seats in the State Assembly; the next morning, they had but one-quarter. The incumbent governor, Warren Knowles, was replaced by Pat Lucey, a Kennedy Democrat. The state Senate had fallen, and the incumbent Sen. Proxmire had won another term.

It was a heady time for Wisconsin Democrats and ushered in an era of progressive policy changes. Republicans won a few important races in the intervening years. Still, it wasn’t until Scott Walker was elected governor 40 years later, in 2010, that Republicans regained the control they had before the earthquake. The reaction of entrenched Democratic, organized labor and progressive interests led to partisan warfare, mob seizure of the Capitol and two unsuccessful attempts to recall Mr. Walker, who was finally defeated in 2018 by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who won reelection to a second term last November.

Mr. Evers, however, hasn’t thus far been able to roll back the policies instituted during the Walker years because Republicans still control both houses of the Legislature and have a one-vote majority on the state Supreme Court. Mr. Evers has instead relied on executive actions with dubious constitutional authority and vetoes. He and his progressive allies have challenged many of the Republican policies in the courts, but these cases have been stymied by the conservative majority on the court.

That may be about to change. Wisconsin voters will vote on April 4 to replace a retiring conservative state Supreme Court justice. The result could easily turn the court’s current one-vote conservative majority into a one-vote progressive majority. Democrats are promising to invalidate virtually everything Republicans put in place while in control if their candidate wins. When asked what is at stake in a recent interview, Mr. Walker, the former governor, replied, “Everything.”

That was not an understatement, which is why Wisconsin is bracing for what many expect to be the most expensive such contest in history. During the 2020 election campaign, Wisconsin was a major target for what have become known as “Zuckbucks;” millions of dollars poured into a state by an outfit set up and financed to the tune of $400 million by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. The money was advertised as a private sector effort to help state and country election officials do their job but was, in fact, targeted to increase turnout in heavily Democratic counties and precincts. Wisconsin received $10 million in Zuckbucks that year, with 85% of it going to Democratic strongholds such as Milwaukee and Madison.

Since then, nearly two dozen states have banned Zuckbucks, but Mr. Evers vetoed legislation that would have done so in Wisconsin. Millions in out-of-state progressive cash is already pouring into the coffers of the progressive candidate, Milwaukee Municipal Judge Janet Protasiewicz. Her opponent believes the 2023 version of Zuckbucks can’t be far behind. As a judge, Ms. Protasiewicz was famously lenient in sentencing criminals and promises that when she gets to the Supreme Court, she’ll do all she can to liberalize the state’s abortion laws.  

Progressive billionaires last year poured some $32 million nationwide into Republican primary contests to pick opponents last year that they believed easier to beat in a general election. This time in Wisconsin, they ran massive ads trashing another conservative who entered as the favorite but who was so damaged that former Supreme Court Judge Dan Kelly beat him. Mr. Kelly, generally considered the weaker candidate, was originally appointed to the court by Mr. Walker but lost his seat by 11 points in 2020.

Meanwhile, the state’s Republicans are busily fighting among themselves. The grassroots organization that elected and then saved Mr. Walker twice has atrophied. Leaders like former state GOP Chairman Reince Priebus are gone, and those who have succeeded them haven’t been able to energize or recruit the volunteer army that made earlier Republican successes possible. The weakness of the party was evident last fall as a vulnerable Mr. Evers won reelection, and Sen. Ron Johnson barely survived a challenge from a radical opponent who should have been easily dispatched.

In the first round of voting that narrowed the field to Mr. Kelly and Ms. Protasiewicz, the two conservative candidates combined took barely 30% of the votes in Madison and Dane County. The county is a liberal stronghold, and Republicans can’t be expected to win it but must do better than that if they expect to win statewide.

Mr. Kelly can still win but won’t if the state’s Republicans don’t get their act together. All that Republicans have worked in the state could be wiped out by a Democratic political earthquake. It’s happened before and will again unless Republicans appreciate the importance of this race and do what needs to be done to win it.

• David Keene is editor-at-large for The Washington Times.

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