A panel featuring a pair of partisan operatives and pollster Charles Franklin highlighted the potential for a surge in turnout in the April presidential primary tipping the balance of the Supreme Court race down ballot.
But speaking at a WisPolitics.com luncheon in Madison, Dem strategist Tanya Bjork and GOP operative Keith Gilkes split on which Supreme Court candidate stood to gain the most from an electorate eager to cast a ballot in a presidential primary.
Bjork said she believed a contested Dem presidential primary at the top of the ticket would generate the turnout necessary to carry Judge Jill Karofsky to an upset victory over sitting Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly.
“The job of progressives is going to be to make sure that all of these folks that are coming out for the presidential primary on the Democratic side realize that there’s an important race down the ballot as well,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of plans in place to be able to make sure that happens.”
Franklin, the Marquette University Law School Poll director, said it was possible the Dem nomination could still be up for grabs when Wisconsin voters head to the polls on April 7.
He said historically, a second-place Dem candidate could “stay in for a long time” if a Dem frontrunner hadn’t built an “insurmountable” lead after Super Tuesday, when the greatest number of states hold their presidential primaries.
Super Tuesday this year falls on March 3, when 14 states, American Samoa and Dems abroad will hold their nominating contests.
“If the third, fourth and fifth people are slow to drop out and should still be picking off 15 or 20 percent of the ballots, it could prolong this process,” he said, adding a fractured field of Dem candidates this cycle, that trend “may be even exaggerated going forward here.”
GOP operative Keith Gilkes agreed that “it is going to be a struggle with a Democratic presidential primary opportunity on the ballot.”
But he said Tuesday night’s statewide election results, in which Kelly claimed 50 percent of the vote in a three-way primary against Karofsky and Marquette University Law School Professor Ed Fallone, “demonstrated that he’s doing all the right things to be competitive.”
Gilkes said he also saw “an equal opportunity for Republicans to be motivated.”
He highlighted the 2012 gubernatorial recall election as an analogous situation to the Republican presidential primary that will only feature President Trump.
Even though former Gov. Scott Walker ran uncontested in the recall primary, Gilkes said more GOP voters turned out than Dems because it was “the first tangible action for conservatives to go out there and do something in support of their candidate.”
“I think that can be true for Trump, especially after… impeachment,” he said. “There is some enthusiasm, there is some interest on conservatives’ part, they know what’s at stake now it’s incumbent upon our party to turn that into more votes.”
Franklin agreed, calling the recall election an “excellent demonstration” of how an uncontested primary can be “an opportunity to rally behind your guy.”
“This will be the first chance for Trump supporters to rally behind him and show that support in April,” he said. “And I think that will be a potent rallying cry over and beyond the Supreme Court race.”
Franklin concluded that a contested Dem primary would be an advantage for Karofsky but added that he “wouldn’t discount” GOP voters rallying behind Trump and boosting Kelly’s prospects in the process.
Hear audio from the luncheon here.