Political strategists on both sides of the aisle caution observers from reading too much into the state Supreme Court race right now — whether it's to predict general election results from the primary or to predict the November climate from the spring contests.
Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock and Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet emerged the winners in Tuesday's three-way primary. Screnock took 47 percent of the vote to Dallet's 36 percent. Madison attorney Tim Burns, who ran as an unabashed Democrat, trailed with 18 percent.
Although Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, they are often fought along ideological lines that align with traditional party divisions. Democrats are celebrating that the two liberal-leaning candidates earned a combined 54 percent of votes in the primary, while Republicans remain confident that a strong statewide political machine will continue to bolster their candidate's odds at the ballot box.
Screnock's appeal to voters mirrored the philosophy espoused by most conservative judicial candidates.
"I think it’s appropriate to have someone who believes the role of the court is to apply the law as it is written," Screnock said in an interview earlier this month. "We do that by interpreting the words the Legislature used and not injecting into that interpretation of what we wish the law said."
His campaign was buoyed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising spending by conservative groups including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, along with more than $100,000 of support from the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Lobbyist Brandon Scholz, who has worked on behalf of conservative Supreme Court candidates in the past, said the primary results prove both the strength of the state GOP infrastructure and the effectiveness of the traditional conservative message.
"I think the conservative message that we’re not going to act like the Legislature, we’re going to rule by law, has always been a strong campaign message," Scholz said. "Conservatives have always been more successful at selling that message."
In a statement, Screnock said the primary results are "proof that voters across Wisconsin value the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary focused on upholding the rule of law and respecting our Constitution and the separation of powers, regardless of their political affiliation."
A question for outside groups thinking about spending on Dallet's behalf, Scholz said, will be whether their efforts can effectively match the level of support offered on the right.
Democratic strategist Melissa Baldauff argued that Screnock owes his victory almost entirely to the groups that spent to support him.
"They came to his rescue. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and that absolutely impacted his performance," Baldauff said. "I think the only reason he got as much has he did was the huge amount of money that poured in to prop him up."
Baldauff said Dallet expects to be outspent, but said the candidate has more than $100,000 in the bank. Dallet will be "well positioned to have the resources she needs to make the case to voters," Baldauff said.
Dallet is a candidate who will "stand up for Wisconsin values and fight against special interest influence on the courts," Baldauff said.
"We are at a time when our rights are under attack," Dallet said in an interview earlier this month.
She named clean air and water, workers' rights and women's rights as key issues.
"We’ve got a Supreme Court that’s broken. We need someone to step up with the values and experience to repair that court," Dallet said.
In a statement, Dallet said the primary results show that voters "want a Supreme Court Justice who will stand up for our values, fight against special interest influence in our courts, uphold the law and the Constitution, and protect our civil and human rights."
Scholz said "for the first time in a long time, the liberal wing of the party has a relatively presentable candidate" in Dallet, describing her as a centrist who played to a liberal base in the primary. Baldauff said she believes Dallet has crossover appeal based on her judicial experience.
But perhaps more important than drawing voters from the middle, Scholz argued, is picking up the voters who supported the openly partisan Burns in the primary.
Burns has not explicitly endorsed Dallet, but he told supporters in an email on Wednesday that he will be donating to her campaign. He encouraged them to do the same.
In the email, Burns said he had no regrets from his campaign.
"Despite coming up short, I still believe retaking the Wisconsin Supreme Court is critical to getting our state back on track," Burns wrote.
Baldauff said Democrats are already united behind Dallet.
"I think that happened pretty quickly, and I think it will continue to happen because ultimately folks do not want to see a rubber stamp for the NRA on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin," Baldauff said, referencing Screnock's endorsement from the National Rifle Association. "I think it is very important for everyone to come together."
Baldauff also cautioned against using the judicial contests as a predictor for races on the ballot in November.
"I don’t think that any elections that are happening now are going to be a reliable indicator of what’s going to happen in the fall," Baldauff said.
Ultimately, Scholz said, Supreme Court races come down to turnout, although he argued the conservative campaign has the advantage.
Both candidates have plenty of room to improve in that area, although turnout for the primary was about 4 percent higher than the average over the last two decades of 7.3 percent.
According to a WisPolitics analysis, turnout was up from the 2016 Supreme Court primary in Dane and Sauk counties — homes to Burns and Screnock — but down in Dallet's home county of Milwaukee.