Updated Apr 5, 2023, 9:34am EDT

What to make of progressives' big wins in Chicago and Wisconsin

Brandon Johnson
REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

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The News

Progressives triumphed in Chicago and Wisconsin last night, gaining the mayor’s office in America’s third largest city and control of the supreme court in the most competitive Midwest swing state.

In Chicago, ex-teacher and union organizer Brandon Johnson won the race to succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, edging past former city schools CEO Paul Vallas. Johnson, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, proposed tax hikes to fund more education and city services, tackling the “root causes” of crime; Vallas, who promised to hire hundreds more police officers, couldn’t overcome years of talk radio remarks he’d made mocking the political left and declaring himself “personally pro-life.”

To the north, Judge Janet Protasiewicz blew past former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, winning the most expensive state judicial race in history with a relentless focus on abortion rights and “democracy.” She shared the stage at her election night party with the three liberals already serving on the court, celebrating a new 4-3 majority that’s expected to rule against Republican-drawn gerrymanders and strike down limits on abortion.

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David's view

These are two of the most significant victories for the American left in years, at least a decade in the making — starting with Democrats’ narrow loss in a 2011 court race, and the 2012 Chicago teachers strike which Johnson helped organize.

The Wisconsin race unified the party, giving it a silver-bullet chance of controlling Wisconsin’s third branch of government. On the trail, where I spent last week, Republicans warned that Democrats would be ready with lawsuits, DOA in the current court but winnable in a liberal majority.


“There’ll be things like redistricting, Act 10, school choice — all the policy decisions that are in conflict with her personal politics,” Kelly told voters at a campaign stop in Madison last week. (Act 10 was the 2011 law that ended collective bargaining for most public sector unions.)

Democrats didn’t worry about polarizing the race, and their strategy paid off. Protasiewicz won more votes than the party’s last judicial nominee, who won in 2020, the same day as the final presidential primary, which had juiced their turnout. National news and conservative commentators obsessed over Donald Trump’s arraignment in New York; Wisconsin Democrats were more motivated to vote than Wisconsin Republicans.

Johnson’s victory was more factional; he’ll win with at most 52% of the vote in a city Joe Biden won with 82%, over an opponent he branded as a crypto-MAGA Republican. But just as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass did five months ago, Johnson put together a coalition of Black voters, Latinos, and white liberals with a combination of progressive promises and a promise to fix public safety, rejecting the “defund the police” concept he’d flirted with in 2020. He called Vallas’s police hiring policies unrealistic, promising to hire more detectives and improve schools, arguing that Vallas, who’d run school systems in Philadelphia and New Orleans after his first stint in Chicago, would bungle it in Chicago.

In both races, Democrats benefited from the Republican Party’s rightward shift, especially in places where they can limit abortion rights. Kelly did particularly poorly in the Milwaukee suburbs, as Democrats warned that a conservative court might uphold the state’s 1849 abortion ban. Democrats linked Vallas to the GOP’s most polarizing figures – from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who gave a politically self-defeating speech to the pro-Vallas police union, to Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose PAC donated to the Democrat.

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  • I previewed Wisconsin’s judicial race, and Democrats’ turn towards hardball partisan politics, after visiting the state last week.
  • And here’s my last dispatch from Chicago, when Johnson was surging toward competitiveness in the polls after Vallas outperformed him in the first round.

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