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The Wisconsin GOP's High Court Crackup
They've picked a helluva time for a food fight
The election that the media has dubbed “the most important election nobody’s ever heard of,” is just weeks away, and has already drawn international attention.
Voting is under way in an under-the-radar race that could wind up being the most important election in America this year.
The NYT headlined: “2023’s Biggest, Most Unusual Race Centers on Abortion and Democracy.” Within weeks, the Times reported, “Wisconsin will hold an election that carries bigger policy stakes than any other contest in America in 2023.”
The state’s high court now has a 4-3 conservative majority, but one of the conservative members is retiring, which has created an opening for progressives to flip the high court for the first time in decades.
And everything is on the line: from Act 10, which limited public employee collective bargaining rights, to gerrymandering, abortion, and the way presidential elections are decided.
“If you change control of the Supreme Court from relatively conservative to fairly liberal, that will be a big, big change and that would last for quite a while,” said David T. Prosser Jr., a conservative former justice who retired from the court in 2016.
The contest will almost certainly shatter spending records for a judicial election in any state, and could even double the current most expensive race. Wisconsinites are set to be inundated by a barrage of advertising, turning a typically sleepy spring election into the latest marker in the state’s nonstop political season.
The Wapo reports that the election “will have sweeping consequences, as the court in the coming years is likely to decide whether to uphold the state’s near-total ban on abortion. It also could wade into disputes over gerrymandering and the outcome of the next presidential election.”
The Bulwark’s headline also captured the stakes “Wisconsin Supreme Court Race a Test for Democracy.”
On paper, the contest is non-partisan, but nobody even bothers to pretend anymore. Next Tuesday’s free-for-all primary includes four candidates: two progressives: Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell; and two conservatives: Dan Kelly and Jennifer Dorow.
The conventional wisdom (which is likely correct) is that the primary will set up a contest between left and right. The same conventional wisdom (on both sides of aisle) thinks that Protasiewicz is the strongest progressive candidate, while Dorow — who achieved a sort of media stardom for presiding over a high-profile criminal case — is the most electable conservative. Kelly, who was named to the Court by former Governor Scott Walker at the urging of the Federalist Society, has already lost a statewide election — a rare defeat for an incumbent justice.
But now we get to the strangest twist in this high-stakes story: After decades of ignoring or downplaying crucial judicial elections like this one, Democrats and their allies are very much focused on the Wisconsin contest.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin conservatives have chosen this moment to crack up.
While progressive dollars pour into the state, Republicans have launched a bitter, high-stakes, and often quite personal, civil war that seems designed to take out the candidate who may give them the best chance to hold onto control of the state’s high court.
The increasingly divisive campaign between the two conservatives — Dan Kelly and Jennifer Dorow — is not about ideology, or even much substance at all. Both are committed conservatives, on the right edges of the legal spectrum, and are even graduates of the same low-ranked law school.
But this has not stopped an increasingly vitriolic right-on-right slugfest.
Check out this flyer, which attacks conservative Dorow for wanting to end cash bail. “Instead of keeping us safe, Jennifer Dorow BAILED OUT on Wisconsin,” it declares, citing statements suggesting that she supported eliminating cash bail. The mailer is paid for by a shadowy conservative group called “Safe Families Wisconsin,” and has a return address from Chicago, Illinois.
The attacks have infuriated influential conservatives. One of the state’s most influential right-wing talk show hosts, Mark Belling, has singled out the role of several judges who are allied with Kelly, accusing them of waging a smear campaign against Dorow “with wild and salacious rhetoric,” including allegedly leaking stories that Dorow’s son may have been involved in a drug death.
How nasty is it?
One of Kelly’s most vocal supporters, an appeals court judge named Shelley Grogan, recently overturned one of Dorow’s decisions in a drunk driving case, prompting Belling to accuse Grogan of calling local lawyers to "mock" Dorow and "crow" about the ruling.
"Did Grogan overturn Dorow just so she could rip her?" Belling wrote. "Is it ethical for an appellate judge to use her own ruling to score political points against another judge? No one really knows, because no one can think of another appellate judge who has done it."
The refusal of Kelly to muzzle the toxic Grogan appears to be the latest case of state conservatives doing everything in their power to blow an election.
The result is that Dorow is being hammered from both the left and the right. Progressive activists, writes Belling, “know that Kelly will be easy to beat.”
He already ran a losing Supreme Court campaign. But Dorow is an existential threat to the left. She got national attention for her deft handling of the difficult Waukesha Parade massacre trial, particularly her handling of the incredibly difficult defendant, Daryl Brooks, who tried unsuccessfully to hijack the trial and turn it into a circus. Dorow is articulate, charismatic, well known, and has the advantage of being a woman running for a position in which state voters, for whatever reason, prefer women (six of the seven current justices are women).
The leftists and their media allies need to get rid of Dorow now because if she survives the primary she could very well win the general election. They have no such fears with Kelly, a proven loser bereft of personal charm.
Belling suggests that Dorow’s main sin is that she jumped line in a race that was supposed to be Kelly’s turn.
Kelly’s gang resents that Dorow is running at all. Kelly decided after he was clobbered in his 2020 bid for a full term on the court that he would run again and he’s been a spoiled brat ever since Dorow decided she would run too. Kelly realizes Dorow is more popular than he, and is headed to a primary victory unless he literally destroys her.
Even if he succeeds, it will be a Pyrrhic victory because the damage from the war Kelly started will leave Conservatives the opposite of united.
Kelly, notably, has not committed to supporting Dorow in the general election if she wins the primary. And, while Dorow has not matched Belling’s rhetoric, she has posted Belling’s jeremiads to her own social media accounts.
Exit take: Despite Belling’s cheerleading, Dorow has baggage of her own. At early candidate forums, she read most of her answers from binders, suggesting that she is, perhaps, not ready for prime time. There may be more oppo research on the way as well…
But, in the meantime, Wisconsin’s GOP continues to meltdown over the most important election of the year.
Give us a listen.
Nikki’s failure to launch
Unless the Republican electorate through the past four election cycles has suddenly vanished and been replaced by the base imagined by the authors of the 2013 autopsy, I don’t see how. If Haley could snap her fingers and magically become the GOP nominee, she might do quite well in the general election (though her message would do much better against a more divisive Democrat than Joe Biden).
But of course, Haley can’t just snap her fingers and magically become the GOP nominee. She has to win the most delegates in the primary contest a year from now, and I can’t imagine she’ll come anywhere close to doing that. Republican voters aren’t interested in being told the candidates they love the most can’t win against halfway decent Democratic alternatives.
That leaves open the possibility of Haley’s campaign serving as an audition to be someone else’s VP. Unless she backpedals a lot from her launch video, I don’t see Trump agreeing to run with her. Would DeSantis would tap her? Maybe. But there will be an awful lot of competition. In Haley’s own state, Sen. Tim Scott looks ready to launch his own presidential campaign. Picking a black man as his running mate would give DeSantis some multicultural cred without having to revert to 2013 on everything. And then there’s Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who isn’t multicultural but might have some of the feminine-populist-starbursting magic that Sarah Palin brought to John McCain’s (losing) 2008 campaign without the Alaska governor’s cluelessness on policy.
Put it all together and I’m left shrugging my shoulders about Nikki Haley’s future. She might boost her speaking fees and increase what she can earn as a consultant. But she’s not going to be president. And she’s unlikely to revive an approach to Republican politicking that her former boss left dead in a ditch the better part of a decade ago.
Republican voters know what they want. And Nikki Haley isn’t it.
1. Chris Miller, the MAGA SecDef, Explains His Anger
Former Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller can list plenty of reasons to justify his reluctance to send troops to secure the Capitol on January 6, 2021—but, as he writes in his new book, Soldier Secretary, he is also self-aware enough to know when he is being “generally a dick.”
Which happens a lot.
Reading this memoir makes it easy to see why President Trump appointed him. Miller is a pissed-off MAGA-friendly former Green Beret eager to give the finger to the establishment, which he does with remarkable candor and callousness. So much so that he remains, even now, unapologetically unbothered by the danger that elected officials were in on January 6th.
2. Why Russian Energy Giant Gazprom Is Mustering a Private Army
This gets us back to why Gazprom might be raising an army: to compete with other power centers in the government for influence with Putin and for resources, both official and under the table. It used to be that the best way to make Putin happy was to make him lots of money, especially euros. Now, the best way to please him is to send young Russians to die in Ukraine.
That’s why Gazprom and its putative private army is no more a threat to the state than the already fractured and fractious security apparatus: It’s not competing for primacy, just profit. Yet its grim new investment may redound to Ukraine’s benefit.