Apr 4, 2023, 5:25pm EDT

What to watch in today’s elections in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Denver

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson
REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

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The News

This is the most important Election Day until November — from a Wisconsin court race that could determine maps, voting rules, and abortion access in a 2024 swing state, to two big city mayoral races shaped by voter angst about crime and homelessness.

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David's view

The results are genuinely uncertain in every single race, making for a dramatic finish even as the public’s attention may be focused elsewhere on Tuesday night.

Chicago. Ex-Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas closed out his campaign with a stop in Roseland, the neighborhood where he grew up — and where he lost badly on Feb. 28. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson held the biggest political rally of the race last week, joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, appealing to progressives in a ward he needed to win big.

“Which side are you on?” Sanders asked a crowd of 4000 people at the University of Illinois Chicago’s sports arena. “Are you on the side of working people, or are you on the side of the speculators and the billionaires?”

Just 16% of Chicagoans voted for Donald Trump, and Johnson’s campaign has tried to sink Vallas by portraying him as a MAGA Republican. That meant highlighting three sets of facts: his skeptical quotes about Democrats, his support from right-wing politicians like Betsy DeVos, and the criticism he’s gotten from city officials in places that put him in charge of schools.


“He has failed everywhere he has gone,” Johnson said at the rally with Sanders.

Vallas, campaigning alongside better-known Democrats like Sen. Richard J. Durbin and Rep. Bobby Rush, has attacked Johnson from the right, warning that his progressive tax plan would wreck the city and that, despite his promise to hire more detectives, the commissioner would “defund” Chicago police.

It took decades for Chicago’s progressives to climb into this position. They’re one election away from putting an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, a teacher himself, on the fifth floor of city hall, and with a left-wing beachhead in the council.

To get there, Johnson needs to turn out the North Side wards where he dominated in February; win the Black wards on the South Side, where he was most voters’ second preference after Mayor Lori Lightfoot; and win as much as he can in Latino neighborhoods where Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, now a Johnson supporter, did best. A win for Vallas would mean high turnout in the northwest and the Loop, strong support from Latinos, and cutting into Johnson’s margins on the South Side.

What sort of council will either man get to work with? That’ll be decided in the 14 wards with aldermanic runoffs. Watch three progressive challengers — Desmon Yancy in the 5th Ward, Ana Guajardo in the 10th Ward, Lori Whitt in the 36th Ward — as a clue for what’s happening up the ballot. Polls close at 7 p.m. local time, 8 p.m. eastern.


Wisconsin. Victory for Judge Janet Protasiewicz here would give liberals a supreme court majority through the next few elections. Victory for former Justice Daniel Kelly would lock in the current 4-3 conservative majority. Those are the stakes, and Democrats have spent three years and tens of millions of dollars to win a court that could revisit the state’s 1849 abortion ban and its 2021 legislative gerrymander.

“That term will run through the 2024 presidential race, through the 2028 presidential race, the 2031 redistricting process — which sets the maps through 2041 — and the 2032 presidential race,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “My 8-year-old daughter will cast a vote for president while Janet is on the bench, serving her first term.”

All told, conservative and liberal forces have spent $42 million on this race, smashing through the state court spending record. Democrats have spent more, and gotten more for that money, thanks to the favorable ad rates candidates get compared to third-party groups that rushed in to boost Kelly.

We know what a close Wisconsin election looks like, and how to tell who’s winning. In February, Protasiewicz and another Democrat got a majority of votes in 26 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, led by Madison’s Dane County. There, they captured 82% of the vote and a 92,000-ballot cushion. Kelly needs to cut into that margin, while turning out as many conservative voters as possible in Milwaukee’s outer suburbs — the “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington — and across the state.

How many voters? We’ll find out, but Republican optimism about a Kelly win comes from the timing, just as Trump is being indicted, and the lack of another big race on the ballot. In 2020, when Democrats shocked the GOP and unseated Kelly, 36% of all eligible voters turned out, and skewed left; the final primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden activated more liberals.


February’s primary saw 22% voter turnout, high for an off-year municipal election, and early/absentee patterns didn’t see much change – high in Dane and the WOW counties, weak in Republican-leaning rural counties, and middling in Milwaukee, the Democratic stronghold that liberals are most worried about.

Polls close at 8 p.m. local time, 9 p.m. eastern.

Denver. A June runoff is almost assured after today. No candidate has broken away in the 17-person field, and public polling has been sparse. Denver is nearly as Democratic as Chicago, delivering 80% of its vote for Joe Biden in 2020, but most of the noise in this race has been made by more moderate and conservative candidates pledging to reduce visible homelessness.

Early on, ex-Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough out-raised the field; Andy Rougeot, an heir to the Sephora cosmetics fortune, has self-funded the only Republican campaign, pledging to hire 400 more cops. But the Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed city councilor Debbie Ortega, while two Democratic legislators, Mike Johnston and Chris Hansen, are running similar, liberal-for-law-and-order campaigns. Johnston’s got a boost from independent groups, which kept him competitive with Brough on the air.

Progressives are trying to take advantage of the scramble to get at least one candidate in the runoff — either state Rep. Leslie Herod, who wants to build more affordable housing to tackle homelessness, or Lisa Calderón, an academic and nonprofit director who wants to start fixing it with an emergency declaration.

The election, mostly conducted with mail ballots, ends at 7 p.m. local time, 9 p.m. eastern.

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