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Expensive, partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court race nears end

Rebecca Dallet
The Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Voters braved cold rain and an early spring snowstorm Tuesday to decide a Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the first statewide general election this year in the United States and the latest measure of voter attitudes heading into the November midterms.

The election pit conservative Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, against liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, who drew support from former officials from Barack Obama’s administration.

Turnout was high Tuesday morning in the Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee, a good sign for Dallet.

“Just watching the people come flying on in here for a midterm in the spring for a Supreme Court justice vote will tell you that people are pretty motivated on the left, from what I can see,” said voter Doug Clawson, 58, of Madison who cast his ballot at a public library as cold rain fell outside. “And I’d imagine there’s probably a little bit of motivation on the right too. … A win by Dallet, maybe even a big win, would send a message that we’re not kidding around here and maybe to borrow an axiom from the right: We’re going to take our country back.”

The race was nonpartisan in name only, with both sides eager to win the 10-year seat on a high court whose ideological split has been on public display in recent years.

Conservatives held a 5-2 majority going into the election, so control wasn’t at stake. But Democrats hoped to build on a surprising victory in January in a special state Senate election, especially with two more special legislative elections coming this summer.

Although the race was viewed by some as a bellwether, results of past Supreme Court elections have not consistently proven to be predictive of what will happen in November. President Donald Trump won the state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.

A snowstorm hitting the central and northern parts of Wisconsin Tuesday wasn’t causing any reported problems of access to the polls, but it wasn’t clear if it would dampen turnout in those areas.

Turnout was high in the state’s two largest and most Democratic cities where rain, not snow, fell all morning. In Milwaukee, turnout was projected to top 30 percent — nearly triple the past two spring elections. In Dane County, home to the liberal capital city of Madison, turnout was on pace to be 50 percent. That is more than double the statewide average in past comparable elections.

Screnock, 48, was appointed circuit judge by Walker in 2015 and counted the conservative state chamber of commerce, a variety of anti-abortion groups and the National Rifle Association among his supporters.

In Brookfield, a conservative-leaning western suburb of Milwaukee, Michael George backed Screnock based on one issue.

“He’s for NRA and the Second Amendment and I think that’s a good thing. That’s what we need right now,” said George, a Republican.

Several voters in liberal Madison said they were motivated to vote against Screnock because of his NRA support.

“I don’t want to support anyone who’s backed by the NRA right now,” said Phil Ouellette, 59, who works in advertising.

Dallet, 48, was elected judge in 2008 after working 11 years as a prosecutor. She benefited from spending by a group started by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and was endorsed by trade and teacher unions, Planned Parenthood and more than 200 Wisconsin judges.

Former Vice President Joe Biden recorded a robocall for her that went out Monday night. Walker urged his followers on Twitter both Monday and again Tuesday to vote for Screnock.

Both candidates argued the other couldn’t be trusted to serve as an independent voice on the state’s highest court because of partisan campaign support.

Spending on TV ads in the race was expected to approach $4.5 million, about what was spent on the 2016 race, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending on court races nationwide.

Dallet ran with a tough-on-crime message, focusing on her prosecutorial experience followed by 10 years working as a judge in Milwaukee. She argued that the conservative-controlled Supreme Court is “broken,” and criticized the justices for not adopting a recusal rule forcing them to step down from cases involving large campaign donors.

Screnock said he was devoted to the rule of law and a strict interpretation of the Constitution, arguments that winning conservative candidates have used in recent state Supreme Court elections.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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