Democrats scored a significant victory in Wisconsin on Monday night when a liberal challenger upset a Trump-backed incumbent to win a State Supreme Court seat, a down-ballot race that illustrated strong turnout and vote-by-mail efforts in a presidential battleground state.
The victory, by upward of 120,000 votes as of Monday night, came as a shock to Republicans and Democrats alike in Wisconsin, where contests for president, governor and the state’s high court in the last four years have all been decided by about 30,000 votes or less. It followed weeks of Democratic anger over Republicans’ insistence on holding elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Wisconsin’s map on Monday night looked like a dream general election result for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee — stronger than typical for Democrats in the suburbs and a respectable showing among the state’s blue-collar white voters in rural counties. But officials from both parties cautioned against overinterpreting the Supreme Court results, given the bizarre circumstances surrounding the high court race.
The challenger for the court seat, Jill Karofsky, ousted the conservative incumbent, Justice Daniel Kelly, in a contest with broad potential implications for voting rights in Wisconsin’s November general election. Justice Kelly became just the second incumbent State Supreme Court justice to be ousted at the polls since 1967. President Trump had boasted that his endorsement of Justice Kelly had unnerved Democrats in the state.
Ms. Karofsky’s surprise triumph came after Republicans in the State Legislature, and later conservatives on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, rebuffed Democratic efforts to move the date of the elections — held last week but with the results delayed until Monday by a federal judge — or send mail ballots to all voters because of the pandemic.
The decisive Democratic win offered a signal that the party, highly energized and mobilized heading into 2020, could organize and execute a winning get-out-the-vote program against strident Republican efforts to limit voter turnout in a narrowly divided state widely expected to be crucial in this fall’s presidential election.
Indeed, senior officials in both parties view Wisconsin as a potential tipping point in a general election between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Ms. Karofsky’s victory suggests Democrats have built a superior turnout operation in a state where elections are decided on the margins.
The election was also the last competitive contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, with Mr. Biden easily capturing the Democratic vote over Senator Bernie Sanders, who dropped out of the race last week.
The Wisconsin vote, held at in-person polling sites last Tuesday after an 11th-hour court ruling that voting should proceed despite the virus, came amid a pitched outcry from Democrats in the state and across the country that Republicans were making Wisconsinites choose between imperiling their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Wisconsin Democrats spent the last week in a state of fury, angry that Republicans had forced in-person voting and risked spreading the coronavirus.
In Wisconsin’s 10 largest counties, Ms. Karofsky improved on the 2019 liberal Supreme Court candidate’s performance by at least five percentage points in nine of them. She flipped two such counties, Winnebago in the state’s Fox Valley, and Brown, which includes Green Bay.
Democrats spent the hours before results were released Monday afternoon bracing for a defeat and making the case that the Wisconsin contest was illegitimate.
“It was voter suppression on steroids,” said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “They tried to steal this election in Wisconsin.”
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said many lawsuits would be filed by voters who were unable to cast absentee ballots, or by candidates in the nearly 4,000 local races that were on the state’s ballot. There are at least eight pending lawsuits seeking partial revotes of the election, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“It’s hard to imagine none of those candidates don’t wind up looking for legal recourse,” Mr. Wikler said Monday morning. By the evening, Mr. Wikler called the result “a victory for justice and democracy in an election that should never have taken place in person.”
Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, have defended holding an in-person election amid the pandemic. Robin Vos, the State Assembly speaker who rejected the governor’s requests to postpone the election, worked as a polling inspector while wearing full protective equipment last week. “You are incredibly safe to go out,” he said.
In the end, Democratic turnout surged in liberal bastions around Madison and Milwaukee. Three weeks before the election, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin shifted all of its get-out-the-vote efforts to virtual organizing and absentee ballot promotion.
Turnout in rural counties, which tilt Republican and backed Justice Kelly, did not keep pace. He conceded defeat Monday night.
The results validated concerns among Wisconsin Republicans that a Democratic presidential primary would increase liberal turnout and doom Justice Kelly. Last year the state’s G.O.P. leaders considered moving the date of the Supreme Court election so it would not coincide with the presidential primary, but backed off the proposal after an outcry.
“Democrats capitalized on the chaos,” said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based executive director of American Majority, a conservative grass-roots training organization. “Democrats and Governor Evers flip-flopping from there is no reason to postpone the election to fear-mongering that people shouldn’t vote in person, gave them an advantage that carried the day. All the while, the left organized a historic number of absentee ballot requests.”
Though Wisconsin’s high court is officially nonpartisan, its springtime elections have in the last two decades become vehicles to test voter enthusiasm ahead of the November general elections.
The court race took on national significance for both parties. If re-elected, Justice Kelly, who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Scott Walker, was poised to be the swing vote on a pending decision on whether to purge more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls ahead of what is expected to be a tight presidential contest in the state. President Trump three times tweeted his support for Justice Kelly, including an Election Day missive urging supporters to “get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly.”
With Ms. Karofsky’s victory, conservatives hold a four-to-three majority on the state’s high court. She will receive a 10-year term beginning Aug. 1.
The results follow weeks of acrimonious wrangling between Democrats and Republicans in the state; citing the risks from coronavirus, Democrats wanted to postpone the election as most of the other states with April primaries did. But Wisconsin law forbade Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, from changing the election date without the consent of the Republican-controlled Legislature, which wanted the election to proceed. Republicans also resisted Mr. Evers’s attempts to relax the state’s strict rules requiring voters to upload a copy of a valid identification card to request and receive a mail ballot.
When Mr. Evers invoked emergency powers the day before the election postponing it until June, the legislature appealed to the State Supreme Court, which blocked Mr. Evers from doing so.
Major efforts by both parties to get their voters to request ballots led to the largest absentee turnout in the state’s history — more than one million votes by mail, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which said the number was already most likely higher and would rise as all the votes were counted.
While images from Wisconsin’s Election Day focused on hourslong lines outside the five polling places that remained open in Milwaukee — down from 180 that had been planned — turnout by mail was higher in the state’s two largest liberal counties relative to the rest of the state than it was during the 2019 State Supreme Court election, which was decided by just 6,000 votes.
Still, voters across the state reported problems receiving and returning absentee ballots. More than 11,600 voters requested an absentee ballot and were never sent one and more than 185,000 ballots were sent to voters but not returned, according to data from the commission, a bipartisan agency run by a Republican appointee of the State Legislature.
In addition, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mail ballots that arrived after Election Day must have a postmark of Election Day or earlier, a requirement that proved instantly problematic when some ballots arrived in the mail at municipal clerks’ offices with no postmark at all. The Milwaukee Election Commission voted Monday to accept 390 ballots that were not postmarked, not postmarked with a date or carried an illegible postmark.
Mr. Biden’s Wisconsin victory over Mr. Sanders was anticlimactic marker on the 2020 Democratic primary calendar campaign. Four years ago, Mr. Sanders easily beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, carrying all but one of the state’s counties en route to a 13-point victory.
But once Mr. Biden accumulated a nearly insurmountable delegate advantage, and with the coronavirus pandemic paralyzing the country, even Mr. Sanders’s most ardent Wisconsin supporters found themselves wanting the presidential contest to be over.
“His support has been affected by people’s desire for security and predictability in this time of crisis and fear,” Beverly Wickstrom, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Eau Claire County, said before the Wisconsin vote. “In this environment, his message of revolution is not resonant.”
Now with Mr. Sanders out of the race and having endorsed Mr. Biden, the only drama left in the Wisconsin primary was how many of Wisconsin’s 77 delegates Mr. Sanders would accrue. Some in the Sanders progressive coalition still hope to influence the party’s platform and rules at the convention, but that can happen only if Mr. Sanders has enough delegates to demand votes on key issues.