Wisconsin Is Finally Coming Out of Its Scott Walker Nightmare

Wisconsin Is Finally Coming Out of Its Scott Walker Nightmare

Wisconsin Is Finally Coming Out of Its Scott Walker Nightmare

The ex-governor seems terrified that the state’s recent elections could threaten the conservative domination he helped create—and he should be.


Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the anti-union zealot whose scorched-earth “divide-and-conquer” politics helped pave the way for Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s lurch toward antidemocratic extremism, was in a frenzy as the high-stakes Wisconsin Supreme Court election approached. Walker campaigned across the state at the side of billionaire-funded conservative candidate Dan Kelly, appeared on Fox News and right-wing talk radio, wrote fervent articles for The Washington Times, and flooded social media with posts that declared, “Radicals want to undo our common sense conservative reforms via the courts. We cannot let that happen. The grassroots will make the difference on Tuesday!”

As it turned out, the grassroots did make the difference—but not in the way Walker was banking on. With a turnout that broke the record for Wisconsin off-year spring elections, voters on April 4 chose liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz in what, for Wisconsin, could fairly be described as a landslide. In a historic battleground state where four of the last six presidential elections were decided by under 25,000 votes, Protasiewicz won by more than 200,000, for an 11-point statewide victory margin in the officially nonpartisan contest. She won big in the progressive heartland of Dane County (Madison), as well as the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee County. But she also won 25 other counties—a number of which had voted for Trump in his presidential bids, and many of which had backed Walker in his three gubernatorial runs. In the suburbs of Milwaukee, the historic base for conservatives seeking statewide office, she came close to winning one county and was strong in the rest.

Protasiewicz’s victory flipped control of the court from a 4-3 conservative majority, which for more than a decade had served as a rubber stamp for agendas advanced by Walker and his right-wing allies in the state legislature, to a 4-3 liberal majority that can now revisit the contentious cases of the Walker era and its aftermath. “Our state is taking a step forward to a better and brighter future where our rights and freedoms will be protected,” declared Protasiewicz.

The judge did all this with a campaign in which she openly and proudly discussed her progressive values. She bluntly declared that Walker’s signature accomplishment as governor—a sweeping assault on unions known as Act 10—was unconstitutional. Drawing a clear line of distinction from Kelly and other conservatives, she ran as a supporter of reproductive rights, voting rights, and the replacement of gerrymandered election lines with fair maps. That led American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten, who marched with hundreds of thousands of union members and their allies in 2011’s mass protests against Walker and Act 10, and in later protests against assaults by Wisconsin Republicans on voting rights, to announce on election night that “Wisconsin Voters Just Took Democracy Back!

That they did, and the message from the result was not lost on Walker. In particular, he raged about the high turnout of young voters, who lined up at campus polling stations to vote for Protaseiwicz. Enthused by her pro-choice stance, student voters helped the judge win wards around the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus by 10-1 margins, and Walker was outraged. “The larger issue here is younger voters,” the former governor ranted, in a postelection interview with Fox News. “This is years of liberal indoctrination coming home to roost, and we’ve got to turn it around if we’re going to win again.”

Walker was right about the role young voters have played in preventing conservatives from winning the victories that they secured during his tenure. But he was wrong about “liberal indoctrination.” It was conservative overreach, in the form of the US Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and send questions about abortion rights back to the states. That energized young voters and women of all ages in last year’s midterm elections, and Protasiewicz’s victory confirms that the issue will remain a powerful motivating force for voters in states such as Wisconsin—where an 1849 ban on abortion rights is now being challenged in state courts.

The change in control of the Wisconsin high court, which previously had an anti-choice majority, could well clear the way for the rejection of the 1849 law and for the restoration of abortion rights in the state. It could also see a revisiting of Act 10 and a host of other Walker initiatives. But the most dramatic political change is likely to involve the structures that determine elections.

The ugliest political legacy of the Walker era was the radical gerrymandering of the state’s legislative district maps, which locked in Republican majorities in the legislature that could not be broken even when Democrats renewed their fortunes and notched up a string of victories at every level of state and federal government, culminating in Biden’s winning the state back from Trump in 2020 and Governor Tony Evers’s successful 2022 reelection campaign.

Gerrymandering is still wreaking havoc. The April 4 election produced the third progressive victory in a state Supreme Court race in five years, but it also saw a right-wing Republican win a special election in a contest for a gerrymandered seat in the state Senate. That restored a GOP supermajority, which it held after the 2022 election and then briefly lost with the resignation of a senior Republican senator. The special-election result produced new threats to the agenda of Governor Evers and ruminations about the prospect that legislative Republicans might try to impeach officials they cannot beat at the polls.

So the fight for Wisconsin goes on. But last week’s election was a critical juncture. The 4-3 liberal majority on the high court will undoubtedly stand up to any efforts to overturn election results in 2024’s presidential election. That’s a big victory for democracy, in Wisconsin and nationally. And if the court scraps existing legislative and congressional district maps—which Protasiewicz has described as “rigged”—it could renew competitive elections and give Democrats a fighting chance to secure statehouse majorities and win US House seats that they’ve been denied since Walker’s allies gerrymandered the state.

For Walker, a consummate politician who admits to still having some electoral ambitions, that’s the really scary part. “This is going to affect far more than just abortion in the state,” he says. “It could affect all the reforms that we enacted during my time as governor. And, nationally, it could affect what happens in 2024 in terms of the race for speaker [of the House] and for president.”

Scott Walker misses the mark most of the time. But he’s spot-on in his assessment of the far-ranging consequences of the change that Wisconsin voted for on April 4.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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