David Michael Miller
Six months ago it looked like State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers was in big trouble. On April 4 he won reelection to a third term with 70 percent of the vote.
This has to make Democrats stop and think what might have been had they been able to come up with a candidate to challenge Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler. Instead, the conservative, Republican-backed Ziegler ran unopposed on the same nominally nonpartisan ballot as Evers. She won a second 10-year term.
It’s difficult not to attribute some of Evers’ strong showing to pent up liberal fury over last November’s elections. Just as tea party activists formed an angry movement eight years ago in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory and passage of the Affordable Care Act, liberals are blistering in their motivation to reverse last year’s electoral disaster.
Evers rode that wave as the clear liberal choice over challenger Lowell Holtz. Evers was a staunch defender of public schools and public school teachers, while Holtz was a proponent of private charter schools. It was a classic choice, a race run right along the fault lines of the current debate over education. We might have expected that the Republican-backed Holtz should have been able to take advantage of that by pulling in millions of dollars in campaign contributions and third-party support from charter school backers nationally.
But that never materialized. In part that was probably because Holtz proved to be a flawed candidate, needing to explain his offer to his primary opponent, John Humphries, to trade a highly compensated DPI job in exchange for Humphries’ dropping out of the race. But funders no doubt also saw polls showing that Evers had strong support among voters who were going to turn out come hell or Wisconsin spring weather. Holtz started to look like a bad bet.
Much like the highly contested Supreme Court race in 2011 between incumbent Justice David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, this was the first chance liberal voters had to show their feelings after a devastating defeat. Then it was the election of Scott Walker and Act 10, and now it was the election of Donald Trump and, well, everything that Trump has done and said before and since. Kloppenburg became the stand-in for a vote of disapproval against Walker while Evers was a proxy for a statement of opposition to all things Trump.
Kloppenburg narrowly lost that race, but this time the Democrats didn’t even try. Instead, liberals were left with Evers, a good and decent man and a fine public servant but one serving in an office of limited power. The court, on the other hand, is the real thing, with a conservative majority that now seems secure for a generation. Ziegler is only 53 years old and could easily serve another two or three decades.
If a liberal or moderate had been on the ballot to oppose her, there is every reason to expect that furious Democrats would have shown up in droves, seeing Ziegler as a punching bag representing all things conservative.
Add to that the fact that the spring election coincided with the Senate’s confirmation vote for Neil Gorsuch to a U.S. Supreme Court seat that Democrats believed was stolen from Merrick Garland, and you had the makings of an overwhelming liberal protest vote.
In fact, in Dane County, Ziegler ran 36,000 votes behind the combined total for superintendent. (If you want to look at a comparable race, she still ran 16,000 votes behind County Executive Joe Parisi, who also ran unopposed.)
There were an astonishing 6,488 write-in votes (almost 11 percent of the total) for anyone but Ziegler. In other words, something like 30,000 to 40,000 Dane County voters chose not to vote for Ziegler or wrote in someone else, even with no real alternative.
But Evers played well all over the state. For example, he won Crawford County with 78 percent of the vote to Holtz’s 22 percent. The same county went for Trump last November by five points. In fact, Trump’s biggest margin of victory in Wisconsin was in Florence County, where he beat Hillary Clinton by a whopping 46 points. Last week Evers won there by a margin of 2 to 1.
Now, to be sure, with more at stake in a Supreme Court race, sharper, longer knives would have been out to attack Ziegler’s opponent. And there’s no question that Democrats are at a money disadvantage. Veteran Capitol reporter Steve Walters points out that in the last four high court races, conservatives and their affiliated groups spent about 40 percent more than their opponents.
But Walters also writes that all that money netted only a razor-thin 2 percent advantage when you add up total votes in all four contests.
There might have been a wave last week, but the Democrats didn’t show up to ride it. And with the list of potential candidates deciding not to take on Scott Walker next year growing large enough to field a baseball team, you have to wonder if the party is up to the challenge of defeating an incumbent governor, even one whose approval rating is at 45 percent.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at Isthmus.com.