Republicans consider moving ‘20 prez primary to help Kelly retain Supreme Court seat

Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

Republican lawmakers have floated the possibility of pushing the 2020 presidential primary off the April ballot in a move that would possibly help the chances conservative Justice Daniel Kelly retain his seat on the Supreme Court, according to multiple GOP sources.

Gov. Scott Walker said yesterday he would consider the idea, even though it could mean creating a standalone election for the presidential primary that could add millions in costs to local election officials.

National party rules would penalize the state if Wisconsin moved the primary to February, when it was for 2004 and 2008.

Because of that, Republicans are looking at creating a new election, possibly in March, for the presidential race, sources said.

Republicans have begun making the argument that a partisan race for the presidency shouldn’t impact non-partisan races for the state Supreme Court and local offices.

Walker seconded that assertion in comments to reporters yesterday.

“I just know as a local official, that was always something that was odd that you have a partisan presidential preference election at the same time that you have local elections, which are non-partisan,” Walker said.

Walker, who took the Milwaukee County exec’s office in a 2002 special election, won re-election in the April elections of 2004 and 2008; the presidential primary in both years was on the February ballot.

Walker appointed Kelly to the state Supreme Court in 2016, and the justice would face voters in 2020 to retain his seat. Republicans, however, have worried the expected turnout for a Dem presidential primary in two years would make Kelly’s retention bid an uphill climb, particularly if President Trump doesn’t face a primary challenge.

Two years ago, nearly 100,000 more votes were cast in the GOP presidential primary than in the Dem race. In the state Supreme Court race that was also on that ballot, conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley fended off a challenger from liberal Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg by more than 95,500 votes.

Republicans have also noted some caveats. They include that there’s no guarantee the Dem presidential nomination would still be in doubt by the time the race hits Wisconsin in April. Some have also questioned whether Trump will seek re-election; if he doesn’t, Republicans could have a protracted fight for the nomination.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, called it a “corrupt attempt by Republican politicians to rig elections in their favor at taxpayer expense,” while state Dem Chair Martha Laning slammed the possible move, saying it would cost taxpayers millions.

“Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald want to put their thumbs on the scale and manipulate an election that won’t happen for over a year,” Laning said. “This is exactly the kind of calculating, divide-and-conquer politics Wisconsinites voted out last week.”

The national parties changed rules for the presidential primaries to prevent “front-loading” after the 2008 race, per past national media reports. The new rules aimed to require states to push their primaries after February — except for Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Both parties also enacted penalties for states that bucked the rules, including reducing delegate numbers for those frontloading states, according to a 2016 Legislative Reference Bureau memo. During 2016, the memo notes, the parties also opted to award bonus delegates to states that scheduled their primaries in line with the national parties’ visions.

The prospect of a difficult Kelly retention bid in 2020 has also upped the stakes for this spring’s race for liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s seat, election observers say.

Appeals Court judges Brian Hagedorn and Lisa Neubauer have already announced plans to run for the seat being vacated by Abrahamson after more than four decades on the court.

With a 4-3 majority, conservatives could create a cushion by winning Abrahamson’s seat in April. That would push the court to a 5-2 majority, lessening the pressure for Kelly to win his retention bid.

But if Neubauer follows Justice Rebecca Dallet’s win this spring, it would put liberals in a position to go from a 5-2 conservative majority earlier this year to taking back control of the court if they could then beat Kelly in 2020.

See more in Thursday’s PM Update.

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