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Analyst Expects Competitive, Expensive Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

Wisconsin's state Supreme Court race suddenly is heating up. Last week, conservative Justice Michael Gableman announced that he would not seek reelection next year.

A couple people had already thrown their hat into the ring. Others followed, after hearing Gableman's news.

UW-Madison Political Science professor Barry Burden predicts even more candidates. He says some will be lured by the open seat; meanwhile, people with liberal leanings may feel compelled to run. Burden says that's because no one challenged Justice Annette Ziegler this year when she ran for reelection. Burden also expects a lot of campaign spending:

After the last election, which was a sleepy affair, and the one before that, which was not quite as competitive as we've seen in recent years, this will be a return to probably a pretty competitive and hard-fought, expensive race. That's been the trend over the last decade or so in Supreme Court races here. Some of it will be out-of-state money, but a lot of it actually is in-state money from sort of corporate and commercial interests on the right and unions and teachers and other groups on the left. So I would expect them to get involved. They really all feel as though they have a stake in what happens on the Supreme Court and would like to either maintain their balance or shift it.

Professor Burden says all of the spending on ads and other materials is a "double-edged sword," as far as voters are concerned:

Voters don't like it. It feels like a waste of money that could be put to better purposes. On the other hand, it's difficult for voters to know what's happening in these races. They tend to be quiet affairs, not a lot of public activity, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to meet the candidates first-hand, for example, and they tend to be relatively short campaigns compared to, say, a gubernatorial or presidential campaign.

So the advertisements do raise awareness and raise turnout. In years where there's more money being spent, turnout levels are higher and the public's more engaged. When there's less money being spent it's just the opposite. What we can hope is that the ads will be truthful and straightforward and not manipulative or loose with the truth.

Burden believes Gableman's place on the bench is up for grabs:

I think this particular seat is quite open and either a conservative or a progressive candidate could win the seat. The balance on the court overall isn't immediately at stake, because right now I think most people agree it's five conservatives and two liberals. And so even if liberals were able to add a seat in this next election, they'd still be at a disadvantage.

So this is an incremental process for both sides, one seat at a time. Just about every year we have a Supreme Court race, and so conservatives built their majority over the last few cycles, and I think liberals are hoping they can get back to majority status in the next couple cycles.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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