MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Bringing an end to a costly, partisan race, Wisconsin voters on Tuesday elected the preferred Democratic candidate to serve a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.
Although the election was officially nonpartisan, the ballot listed Republican-backed Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock and Democrat-backed Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet to replace Justice Michael Gableman, who makes up part of the court’s 5-2 conservative majority. Gableman opted not to seek re-election after his term expires on July 31.
With nearly 100 percent of the vote counted late Tuesday night, more than 990,000 Wisconsinites showed up at the polls, with 55 percent casting their ballot for Dallet. Screnock received 44 percent of the vote.
Democrats hoped to flip the Wisconsin Supreme Court seat and add to their victory from earlier this year in a special state Senate election. Voters also recently took Governor Scott Walker to court, where a Dane County judge ordered him to call for special elections this summer to fill two vacant state legislative seats.
Screnock, 48, was appointed as a circuit court judge by Walker in 2015 and was elected to a full term in 2016. He previously worked at a private law practice and also worked in municipal management before getting his law degree.
During the election, Screnock received support from the conservative state chamber of commerce, various anti-abortion groups and the National Rifle Association, among others. His top donor was the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which contributed over $270,000 to his campaign.
Screnock pushed a message of strictly abiding by the law coupled with a clear interpretation of the Constitution.
He said at a debate last month, “It’s critically important that the next justice of our Supreme Court actually does just follow the law, abides the laws they confide in and not as what they wish it to be.”
Dallet, also 48, was elected as a circuit court judge in 2008 following 11 years of prosecution work. She was supported by several Democratic political action committees, trade and teacher unions, Planned Parenthood and over 200 judges. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Democratic U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, spent more than $140,000 on ads backing Dallet.
The mother of two girls campaigned on a message of targeting crime with a focus on her past experience as a prosecutor.
“I have the right experience to return independence and balance to what has become an increasingly partisan Supreme Court,” Dallet said last year when announcing her candidacy.
Both candidates argued the other is an “activist” who received partisan support throughout the election and therefore could not serve as an independent voice in the state’s high court.
In the primary last month, Dallet and Screnock edged out Democratic candidate Tim Burns. Over 500,000 people voted, about 11.7 percent of Wisconsin’s voting population. Forty-six percent voted for Screnock, 35 percent for Dallet and 17 percent for Burns. Only the top two candidates could advance to the general election.
The upcoming special elections, recently announced by Governor Walker, will be held this summer to fill two open seats in Wisconsin’s Assembly District 42 and Senate District 1.
The seats became vacant last December when two Republican state lawmakers – Representative Keith Ripp of Lodi and Senator Frank Lasee of De Pere – stepped down to join Walker’s administration.
Republicans have a 65-35 advantage in the Assembly and an 18-14 majority in the Senate. However, Democrats just won a seat in the state Senate in a special election earlier this year and likely see two more special elections as another opportunity to flip seats.