Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

11 Lessons From The Democrats’ Victory

How did Protasiewicz win by so big in such an evenly divided state?

By - Apr 12th, 2023 05:30 pm
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz appears in a headshot. Photo courtesy Janet Protasiewicz campaign.

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz appears in a headshot. Photo courtesy Janet Protasiewicz campaign.

The margin was more than 203,000 votes. How did Democrats win so easily in April’s Supreme Court election? In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Patrick Guarasci, who served as general consultant for the campaign of winning candidate Janet Protasiewicz, offered an insider’s look at how the victory was achieved and the lessons for future races.

Lesson No 1: Choose the right candidate. Seems obvious but the right candidate can vary, depending on the particular race and how it will play out with voters. For this race, Guarasci notes, the assumption was that more women would vote in an election with abortion at stake, something polls and surveys would later confirm.

“It was very clear to me that someone like Protasiewicz, a female, former prosecutor and current judge, would really resonate with the voters,” Guarasci says. Republicans had run on crime in the 2022 midterms and were expected to do the same in this race. “We needed someone who could push back on crime. And who could handle a white-hot campaign.”

Guarasci, who has worked on many campaigns, including repeated victories by former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, had worked on Protasiewicz’s losing campaign for circuit court judge to Rebecca Bradley in 2013, “and I was really impressed and inspired by Janet,” he says. Protasiewicz went on to win a position as circuit court judge a year later, and Guarasci was among a number of Democrats who urged her to run for the state Supreme Court in this year’s election.

Eventually, Guarasci recalls, “she basically said ‘I’m going to run but you’ve got to do it with me.’”

While a second liberal, Everett Mitchell, would also run in the primary, much of the Democratic establishment was behind Protasiewicz. Which brings us to lesson number two:

2. Assemble the best organization: “I was surrounded by the most talented people in the business,” Guarasci says. “Hiring number one,” he says, was bringing on Alejandro Verdin as campaign manager. Others working on the campaign included longtime democratic election consultant Sachin Chheda, Protasiewicz’s former campaign manager Marshall Cohen and Sam Roecker as communications director.

If Guarasci had a dream team, Judge Jennifer Dorow, the conservative who entered late and lost in the primary, had a less experienced organization. “It was not the A team,” Guarasci says. “It was very clear they didn’t know what they were doing.”

3. Craft the right message. “At the core of the Protasiewicz campaign was the principle, meet the voters where they are, not where you want them to be,” Guarasci notes. By contrast, he argues, the campaign of Dan Kelly, the conservative who squeaked out a primary win over Dorow, exemplified an ongoing problem for Republicans in recent races: “not running on issues the American people support.” A case in point was Kelly’s past work with election deniers, something independent voters oppose, and which was the subject of attack ads. And Kelly’s stand on abortion was also opposed by a significant majority. Meanwhile Kelly pushed the message that he would be a better defender of the state Constitution, an issue unlikely to generate voter passions or turnout.

4. Pound the abortion issue. “It was the biggest issue in the campaign,” Guarasci emphasizes. “It was the ‘don’t screw it up issue.’” Yes, the campaign’s ads pushed the issue relentlessly, but the Kelly campaign helped by trying to ignore the elephant in the room, the biggest issue in the race. And Kelly helped drive the turnout by women concerned about this issue by repeatedly referring to Protasiewicz as “Judge Janet” or deriding the “rule of Janet,” Guarasci believes. “I think women saw in that every boss or every man that’s talked down to them.”

5. Neutralize the crime issue. “We knew this attack was coming. They used that all across the country, all across the state in the November midterms. So we hit them first on that.”

The Protasiewicz campaign had an attack ad charging that Kelly defended sexual predictors as soon as the primary ended, so that when his crime ads came they felt like a response to Protasiewicz. But Democrats also pushed the fact that Kelly, by his own admission, had never presided over a criminal trial as a judge. Whereas Protasiewicz had years of experience handling crime as both a prosecutor and judge.

“A lot of research want into this. We knew that crime was a multi-racial issue for people. It’s one of the top issues for Black voters.” So you can’t let Republicans own this issue, Guarasci argues. “Democrats and Progressives need to know that they can talk about public safety.”

6. Tell a story. Campaigns are about contrasting narratives. The Protasiewicz campaign started with a humorous ad about the difficulty of pronouncing her name that humanized her and continued to sell her as the “sane and reasonable candidate” while Kelly was an extremist. Every attack on him — and there were numerous topics in the ads — all blended with and repeated the “extremist “ message.

Throughout the campaign polls showed that Protasiewicz had a net positive rating with voters. “Even the (conservative) WMC poll showed Janet had a positive rating, even after all the ads saying those terrible things about her.”

7. Reveal the candidate’s values. The traditional judicial campaign emphasized a candidate’s experience and endorsements, while avoiding direct discussion of issues. But in today’s highly partisan times, “you can’t win an election like that.” Guarasci says. “Candidates can’t do that dance anymore because the voters don’t understand it.”

And so Protasiewicz talked about her support for women’s reproductive rights and her opposition to “rigged” legislative maps and this, too, became part of the story the campaign was telling. “Progressives want to see you fight. And they will reward you for that.”

8. Don’t get outspent. Throughout the campaign Protasiewicz was raising more campaign money and Kelly was benefiting from more third party spending, but the grand total was as high or higher for Protasiewicz. Guarasci credits Democratic Party of Wisconsin leader Ben Wikler and his team for that. He also notes that Wikler sold out-of-state donors on the idea of contributing to the Democratic Party rather than liberal third party groups because they would get the most bang for their buck. That’s because political campaigns get the lowest ad rate from TV stations, about one-third of what “independent” third party groups are charged, so the Protasiewicz campaign was able to run far more ads than her opponents.

By contrast, most of the donations from wealthy conservatives in the race went to third party groups. Guarasci thinks this is because of the divisions in the Republican Party, with many donors distrustful of the party. Brian Schimming, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin was quoted on WSAU radio recently addressing the fact that Democrats got cheaper ad rates bacause “some of the conservative groups wanted to spend their money on their own” in the Supreme Court race. “Well, that was in view a costly mistake.”

9. Stay unified. There was no bickering between the two liberal candidates for the court and no divisions during the general election. By contrast there was a veritable right-wing war between the supporters of Kelly and Dorow that lingered through the general election, hurting Kelly. “It was clear that conservatives were not organized, not ready for the race.”

10. Organize on the college campuses. All signs suggest the turnout was strong for college age voters, who lean heavily liberal. “When all is said and done the turnout will be impressive,” Guarasci says.

11. Run a truly statewide race. The campaign’s paid media specialist Ben Nuckels “had a media strategy to reach all voters across the state,” Guarasci notes. “We were dominating with ads in Green Bay, northern Wisconsin and Wausau throughout the campaign, even after (conservative donor) Dick Uihlein started spending big in that area. You want to give yourself multiple ways to win.” Of course, the campaign had more money to spend, which made that strategy possible. By contrast, the Kelly campaign concentrated on their base, media outlets like talk radio and pounding the crime issue. In a swing state like Wisconsin, where races are typically so close, they fell short by a mile.

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