Home » The Downballot: The inside story on winning the Wisconsin Supreme Court (transcript)

The Downballot: The inside story on winning the Wisconsin Supreme Court (transcript)

We’re going deep inside last year’s momentous progressive victory in the battle for control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court on this week’s episode of “The Downballot,” where we’re joined by Alejandro Verdin, who managed Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s triumphant campaign. Verdin explains how he assembled a team that took the little-known Protasiewicz from third place in the polls to a runaway first-place finish in the primary and then on to a landslide win in the general election.

Verdin tells us why Protasiewicz broke with the staid traditions of campaigning for judicial office and was so outspoken on the issues that voters cared about—particularly gerrymandering and abortion. Plus: the never-before-revealed easter egg trolling their conservative opponent that the campaign inserted into their ads.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also recap Tuesday’s elections in New Hampshire—no, not those elections. We’re talking about two special elections for the state House, of course! Then it’s on to Louisiana, where the Davids explain how the state’s unique all-party primaries will come to a (partial) end, and how a Republican congressman might get revenge on his party for making him walk the plank in redistricting.

Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. New episodes every Thursday morning!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.

Beard: What are we talking about on this week’s show, Nir?

Nir: Well, of course, we have to talk about the elections in New Hampshire—just not the ones that everyone else was talking about. This is “The Downballot,” after all. Then we are going to be discussing two big changes to election laws in Louisiana, one to their primary system, and another to their congressional map.

And then coming up after the break, our guest this week is operative Alejandro Verdin, who ran the campaign of none other than Janet Protasiewicz, the very successful candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2023, whose victory changed the composition of the court in a huge way. It is a fantastic and super fun episode. So let’s get rolling.

Well, we’re going to talk about the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, but not in the way that you’re thinking.

Beard: No, I know that’s what everyone’s talking about this week, but that’s not what we at “The Downballot” talk about. We talk about something else to do with New Hampshire.

Nir: So unfortunately you can’t win them all. Democrats have generally been on a really good run in special elections in 2023, ’24, this whole cycle, but they lost two special elections in the New Hampshire House on Tuesday night that were held simultaneously with the presidential primaries. Now, one of them was a solidly red seat that was already held by Republicans. So it’s no surprise that the GOP hung on to that one. But Republicans actually did manage to flip a Democratic-held seat. The reason they could, though, is that Democrats faced huge headwinds thanks to the fact that Republicans had a competitive presidential primary.

Democrats didn’t even really have a primary at all. The DNC told New Hampshire, “You can’t go first anymore, and if you try to, we’re going to strip your delegates,” and they carried through on that threat. It was a promise, I guess, and Joe Biden wasn’t even on the ballot. So we had this situation where turnout overwhelmingly favored the Republican primary, and that just simply drew out more Republican voters. And so when you look at things in the context of these serious headwinds, Democrats actually overperformed the electorate as a whole.

Beard: Yeah. So this is really the seat that you could say that Nikki Haley won because just by the pure sense of being a Republican who was at least somewhat competitive against Trump and obviously, specifically to New Hampshire, that made turnout grow on the Republican side. I’m sure Democratic turnout was not going to be great in the first place, and then with all of this other stuff that you talked about with the DNC, it was probably even lower. So it’s a pretty tough situation to overcome something like that. So I’m not surprised that we ended up losing.

Nir: That’s really funny. I love how Ron DeSantis loses a special election and Nikki Haley wins one and it’s not even in her home state. So here are the actual results. Both of these elections were in Coös County, which is the northernmost county in New Hampshire, right up there against the border with Canada, a large, sprawling, mostly rural county.

In the 6th District, this was the Democratic-held seat, Republican Michael Murphy beat Democrat Edith Tucker, 54-46. Biden actually carried this district to 55-43 in the 2020 general election. In the 1st District, also in the same county, Republican Sean Durkin defeated Democrat Cathleen Fountain. This was a seat Trump won 53-45. Durkin won 60-40 on Tuesday night.

As a result of these two special elections, the New Hampshire House now has 200 Republicans, 195 Democrats, three independents, and two more vacant seats. Both of those are safely blue and they will be filled in special elections on March 12.

Beard: And of course, like we’ve seen really throughout this entire two-year cycle, the New Hampshire House being this close means that control of the Chamber can actually fluctuate legislative day by legislative day as absences come and go with so many members in such a small state.

Nir: So getting back to the presidential primary, we’re actually going to delve into this, but in our way. In the 6th District, this is the Democratic seat that the GOP flipped, 62% of all voters in that district cast ballots in the GOP primary, and only 38% did so in the Democratic primary. So that means there was a 22-point edge for Republicans. But as you’ll recall just a moment ago, I mentioned that the Republican candidate in the special election only won by 8 points. So that’s a difference of 14 points, which suggests that Democrats actually ran ahead of the electorate there.

And we saw the same thing, in fact, even more pronounced in the 1st District. This was the Republican-held seat there, the primary electorate was split 72 R, 28 D. That’s a margin of 44 points, but the GOP only won the special election by 20 points. So that’s the difference of 24 points in terms of Democrats in the special election running ahead of the primary electorate.

Now, we know that some Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voted in the GOP primary specifically to support Nikki Haley over Donald Trump. But all of the available evidence says that the Republican primary was still heavily made up of Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents. It wasn’t just crossover votes from Democratic-type voters who helped boost the GOP primary turnout. Democratic turnout was simply down and Republicans knew exactly what would happen when they were scheduling these special elections to coincide with only a GOP presidential primary actually mattering. It gave them a huge boost and they benefited from it.

The problem for them though is that that’s not going to be the case in November. So when the general election rolls around for a full two-year term, the 6th District is almost certainly going to revert to form, and that means Democrats will have an excellent chance of picking it back up. And also Beard, like how you were saying, given how close the chamber is as a whole, I think Democrats have a really good shot at winning back the whole thing in November.

Beard: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. Of the swing states, as we think of them, New Hampshire is one where Donald Trump has really not held up well. We saw in 2022 that Democrats did a lot better than they expected. Biden’s polling has not been great recently. It’s held up in New Hampshire. The state is just not a good fit for Trump. We’ve seen even in the primary stuff—that he is expected to do a lot better in other states than he did in New Hampshire. And so I think given that he’s the presumptive GOP nominee, I think that Biden has a good chance to win the state and to bring along a lot of Democrats at the state House level with him in November.

Nir: So let’s talk about Louisiana’s primaries. Currently, all candidates run together on a single ballot, and if no one gets a majority, then the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to a runoff. This is true for all elections except for presidential primaries. Republican Gov. Jeff Landry had wanted to put in place traditional party primaries like the kind that you find in almost every other state for a wide range of races, including for the state legislature and for statewide offices like governor. And he had wanted these primaries to start this year.

Notably, he had also wanted primaries to be closed by default, meaning that only registered members of a political party could vote in their party’s primaries unless the party otherwise gave you permission. That would’ve given him more leverage to threaten lawmakers who might oppose him because they wouldn’t have been able to rely on Democratic votes in an all-party primary in order to save them.

Lawmakers didn’t seem to like that for obvious reasons. So in the final bill they passed, it only applies to a smaller subset of races, chiefly federal races. So House and Senate, the state Supreme Court, the Public Service Commission, and the statewide education board. It does not include races for state legislature or races for governor and other statewide offices. It also won’t start until 2026. Election administrators had said that trying to implement the new system this year would be a mess, so it got deferred a few more years. But this creates a situation where Louisiana is going to have different styles of primaries for different offices, and I think that could get very confusing very quickly.

Beard: Yeah. Obviously, Louisiana already had a pretty different system than most other states in the country. Like you said, they used everybody on one ballot as a first-round system. They also, in odd-numbered years at least, would have their elections off a normal cycle. They would have them on Saturdays, with the first round being in October and the second round being in mid-November, whereas most states adhere even in the odd years to that Tuesday in November schedule that we’re used to. So it’s already a little strange if you move to Louisiana and you’re not used to all that, and now you have these two different systems, one with a party primary, one with everybody on one ballot depending on what race it is. So I think this is going to cause a lot of confusion, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see if this ended up going one way or another, where they go all in with a party primary system or they revert back these races to how it was. Because it’s confusing enough already without having these two different systems.

Nir: We also have Louisiana’s new congressional map, which we discussed in detail on last week’s show. But the central feature of the map is a brand new 6th District that stretches 250 miles from Shreveport in the state’s northwestern corner all the way to the capital of Baton Rouge. It has a 54% Black majority in terms of the voting age population, and it would’ve backed Joe Biden by a wide 59-39 margin.

And this means that Republican Congressman Garret Graves has zero hope if he were to run for reelection in this new-look 6th District. Instead, it’s almost certainly going to elect a Black Democrat like former Congressman Cleo Fields, who has already announced a campaign. But Graves has signaled that he is not ready to give up. And one option would be, as we often see during redistricting years, is for him to run against another GOP incumbent.

And the most obvious choice for him would be to run against Julia Letlow in the new 5th District. Letlow represents 57% of the redrawn 5th District, and Graves only represents 43% of it. However, the number of Trump voters from the 2020 election in their respective portions of the 5th District is almost equal. So that suggests that their bases would be pretty comparable if they were to face off in a primary against one another. But as we just mentioned, the changes to congressional primaries won’t happen until 2026, so it would still be an all-party primary, and that means there would be a large chunk of Biden voters in this district in such a race, and who knows whether they would go for Letlow or Graves.

Beard: Yeah, I think Graves’ biggest problem is he doesn’t have a clear path either to the left or to the right. Obviously you could pull what I would call a “Murkowski” and try to pull everyone else together with your group of Republicans, and then everyone to the left, to try to cobble together this weirder, more moderate majority. Or you can go to the right and try to just win more Republicans, figure the Democrats and independents will split or not vote if it’s between two Republicans, and just try to get a majority of the Republicans by running to the right.

Now I don’t see he has much appeal to Democrats and independents. It would be pretty surprising to me to see him successfully pull off a Murkowski-style campaign. But he also doesn’t really have a good path to go this hard-right Freedom Caucus [route]. He was really mad at the Republicans who brought down McCarthy. He was a McCarthy ally.

I would be surprised if Trump came in for him. Obviously, Trump is the big card you can play in Republican primaries to try to win over Republican voters. If anything, I would bet Letlow would have a better chance of getting Trump’s endorsement given that she’s close with so many of the party’s power brokers in the state. So there’s not really a path you can see here short of getting himself a new map.

Nir: That may be exactly where he’s headed. Option B would be to challenge the new map in court, and probably the strongest way he could do so would be to argue that it’s an unlawful racial gerrymander.

Now we should unpack what that term means because it gets thrown around a lot; we’ve used it a bunch. But, in a nutshell, when you draw districts, you risk violating the U.S. Constitution. If you rely too much on race. You can’t just say, “Well, here’s a group of Black voters over here, and here’s one over there. So if we link them together, then we can make a Black majority district.”

The way that the Supreme Court has phrased things is that you’ve probably committed a violation if a district is “so irrational on its face that it can be understood only as an effort to segregate voters into separate voting districts because of their race.”

Obviously, racial segregation is illegal under the U.S. Constitution in a broad number of contexts, and that includes redistricting. The 6th District might suffer from exactly that problem, though. In fact, it closely resembles the last district that Cleo Fields ran in back in 1994, which was then numbered the 4th District, and that district, which was also a majority-Black district that stretched from Shreveport to Baton Rouge, was struck down by the courts as a racial gerrymander.

Now what the state might argue, and this is so cynical, but I really think we could see something along these lines, probably couched in fancier language, is that its motives were not racial, but they were purely partisan—that lawmakers simply wanted to get rid of Garret Graves. The Supreme Court has said that’s perfectly legal.

We usually think of partisan gerrymandering as trying to extract a political advantage out of a map for one party or the other in terms of gaining seats, or at least not losing seats, on a D versus R basis. But if you decide that you hate a member of your own party and want to make sure that he can’t win reelection, that falls under the same rubric as partisan gerrymandering, and SCOTUS has said the courts can’t do jack about that.

Beard: Yeah, it’s obviously a weird situation with these past rulings from the ’90s, how similar the new district is to the district that was struck down then. But I do think it’s pretty clear that the legislators in this case could have drawn a Black-majority district that was much more compact, and then chose instead for political reasons to draw a less compact district that still met the court’s requirements.

So I do think that’s a reasonable line of thinking, even if it seems like such a weird conclusion to be like, “Let’s put back this district that was struck down.” But if you get there from a very different way, I could see the court saying, in that case, it’s okay.

Nir: Yeah, I really could. Sad to say, John Roberts has, in previous cases regarding voting rights, allowed lawmakers to totally launder their rationale by pulling stunts like this. At the moment, a trial is supposed to take place on March 25 regarding the new map, but the plaintiffs in the case have all expressed their happiness with this new district. So it makes it seem like the case is going to settle. Therefore, Graves or an ally would somehow have to try to intervene or maybe bring a new lawsuit challenging this map.

We’ll see what happens. I’m fascinated to see what happens next, whether he runs against Letlow or maybe even another member, or whether he tries to get involved in the court case. The one problem when you try to make a member of your own party walk the plank is that they get very pissed. They feel like they have nothing to lose. Garret Graves has nothing to lose. So he could try his hardest to fuck shit up for Republicans right now, and there’s nothing stopping him.

Beard: Let me pitch something to Rep. Graves, on the off chance that he hears this. You know what? Your party doesn’t want you. Kevin McCarthy walked out the door, your good friend and ally. Just resign. Just leave now. The House majority, they’re fine. They’ve got a three-seat majority. They don’t need you. Just leave. Just go back to whatever you were doing before you got elected as a congressman and wash your hands of the whole thing.

Nir: This message was delivered 100% in good faith. You’re listening to “The Downballot.” Coming up after the break, we have an awesome interview with an awesome guest talking about one of our favorite all-time races. We are going to be interviewing Alejandro Verdin, who was the campaign manager for Janet Protasiewicz on her massively victorious win in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2023. Please stick with us. It is going to be a fun one.

We are joined today on “The Downballot” by Alejandro Verdin, who managed Janet Protasiewicz’s successful campaign for the Wisconsin Supreme Court last year. Alejandro, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Alejandro Verdin: Thank you both for having me, Nir and Beard. I am so happy to be here. I know that I made it a case that we accept the Campaign of the Year Award only on this show. That’s what we would do. I think that’s a tradition we need to continue.

Nir: Absolutely. So, “Downballot” listeners, you will recall that in our last episode of the year, we handed out the inaugural Downballot Awards and the award for Campaign of the Year went to Janet Protasiewicz and team. And Alejandro, now you’re here to collect your trophy.

Verdin: I’m here. I was going to make a joke and cue my own music, but I don’t want to mess with the recording or any of those issues. But we’re excited to be the inaugural recipient. So thank you.

Nir: So we’ll get down to business. Why don’t you start by telling us how managing a Supreme Court race differs from managing a more typical kind of campaign like you might see for a Congress or the state legislature in a traditional partisan race?

Verdin: Yeah, I mean it’s wildly different. There’s a joke amongst judicial campaigners and campaigns themselves that they’re different in the sense that, politically, these are races for attorneys by attorneys. They’re a little under the radar. People don’t really care about them.

Getting people fired up for a judicial race is harder because traditionally these races have been run in the scope of following the constitution, upholding the law, things that just really aren’t that sexy or hot.

I think we changed the game there with Judge Janet because we understood that in order to get folks engaged, and fired up, fired up, especially about a state Supreme Court race. We needed to give people a reason to vote. The reason was obviously the balance of the court, the important issues that were going to come before the court, and Judge Janet being able to express her values without signaling how she would vote because that would be inappropriate.

But they’re different because candidates that are running for judicial races can’t talk about issues that could potentially come before the court, or can’t talk about the hot-button issues of the day. So it’s really hard to get folks kind of engaged when these are very under the radar and boring, for lack of a better term.

Beard: So we definitely want to get into how the campaign had a much more aggressive stance on a couple of issues. But first I want you to take us back to the very beginning when you first got hired on the campaign and how you built up this campaign and the staff in the context of this being a judicial race the way that you talked about.

Verdin: Yeah. I look at this race and this campaign in particular in four steps. First, it was building the best possible team that we could have. Truly and unbiasedly we did that. There’s a long list of thank yous and folks that definitely played a hand in this.

But first Patrick Guarasci, who was our general consultant. He worked with Judge Janet on her earlier circuit court races. He has known her for years, has a breadth of experience in the state, and was a very steady hand for the campaign. He brought me on and he hired me. He served as our general consultant.

There’s Ben Nuckels, who is one of the best ad makers in the country, hands down. He’s smart and innovative, understands what really moves people, and truly is a secret weapon for campaigns. There were so many other folks on the team like Sam Rucker, our comms director, Brian Stryker, our pollster, our digital fundraising team at Goodman Campaigns, the whole staff and the partners on the ground, Ben Wikler and the party and the DPW staff and folks that really played a hand.

It was truly a top-tier team and top-tier campaign, and we didn’t really lack anything because of that. People understood the stakes and we understood that we all had to come together to win this race.

So it’s like the first stage for me. It was one building a team that could weather the storm and that could really go the long haul. Secondly, I think we had a really hard primary. I think people underappreciate that there was a four-way primary. Judge Janet faced a steep climb. Internal early polling showed that she was in a distant third with like 10% of the vote.

Nir: So why don’t you walk us through who all the players were in that primary, since it’s over a year ago now?

Verdin: Yeah. So the Wisconsin Supreme Court races, they’re primaries, nonpartisan primaries. Very different than the other judicial races across the country. The top two vote-getters basically advance.

In our primary specifically, you had Dan Kelly, who’s a former state Supreme Court justice who was appointed by Scott Walker. You had Judge Jennifer Dorow, who you all covered, and was kind of like a national celebrity judge. She oversaw this awful Waukesha Parade massacre case. There was this 24/7 news coverage on her and her handling of that. Then we had Judge Everett Mitchell, who is a Dane County judge, a very incredible speaker, and a very inspiring orator on the campaign trail. And then we had Judge Janet, who’s a Milwaukee County judge and former prosecutor.

And so essentially, on the liberal side, you had Judge Mitchell and Protasiewicz who were virtually unknown to the electorate, but then we had two conservative judges who both had high name ID, one of them being a former Supreme Court Justice and the other coming off of this high profile case. So there was a real concern that two conservative justices would advance and would face each other off and liberals in the state would be screwed, right? And so we had to kind of maneuver around those dynamics and set Janet apart. We’re going to get into how we kind of did that, but it was really, really hard considering that no one knew any of them. And we had to use resources wisely and effectively and efficiently to kind of pull it off.

Nir: Daily Kos endorsed in this race. We made a point of getting involved early, precisely because of this fear of this top two lockout. It’s the kind of thing that Democrats have had to worry about a lot in California, in particular in House races there. But of course, it reared its head in Wisconsin, and we felt the need to jump in precisely because of that potential nightmare.

I mean, I can’t imagine anything worse than with the control of the court on the line if we had wound up with a general election runoff between Dorow and Kelly. I mean, that thought fills me with dread and I can’t even imagine what a motivating factor that must’ve been for you.

Verdin: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think we had a couple of really good things going for us in a sense. One, Janet was just a workhorse. She was willing to do anything and everything without complaining about it. Every corn roast, every butter fest, every Democratic County party meeting, every coffee meeting, you don’t even want to know. And it also helped that our team outraised all the candidates, every reporting period because we understood that we needed money, we needed resources.

Another thing too is that obviously Janet has a very hard name, a difficult last name. Most people look at it and it’s like these hieroglyphics. People would literally come up to her on the campaign trail and be like, “You need to change your name or else you’re going to lose this campaign.” And so then me, as the campaign manager have to fields those, “Hey, it’s fine. We’re going to be okay. Don’t worry about it.” And so I give a lot of credit to Ben Nuckels because one of his very first ads-

Nir: I remember this one.

Verdin: Yeah, it was the very lighthearted ad on Janet’s name. It was a direct-to-camera with people messing up her name. But deeper than it being a funny ad, it gave voters the permission to mess up her name and have fun with it, and it made her very approachable. And that was a key move. That was a very strategic decision because we understood that Protasiewicz is a very hard name to kind of understand and pronounce. So it was a lot of fun. And we had limited resources, right? But we’ll get into that too.

Nir: So you mentioned that you started off at third place in the polls, making this lockout look like something you really had to fight to avoid. What steps did you take to make sure that didn’t happen?

Verdin: Early on, we knew that we had to raise her name ID and we had to raise your approval numbers, right? And you’re going to be hearing me say Ben Nuckels a lot throughout this episode, but he really understood how to spend that money effectively, right? Most media firms will try to sell you 30-second ads and convince you that you need a long spot to introduce yourself to voters. But we know as politicos that people look at an ad for five or ten seconds and then they change the channel. And so Ben instead produced 15-second ads, introducing Janet, stating our message really quickly, kind of like quick and short daggers. And they were half the price of a 30-second ad, basically a 2-for-1. So these 15-second ads in the primary were key in raising her name ID and her approvals, but it also, because they’re such short ads, it also tied her name directly to the issues that we were talking about. So we had different variations of these ads.

The ad essentially in 15 seconds, it was Janet Protasiewicz anti-abortion, Janet Protasiewicz for public safety, Janet Protasiewicz anti-corruption, tying those key issues that we knew polled well to her name. And it kind of created this narrative around her and the campaign that was tying her to the issues and also introducing her to the electorate, raising her name ID. And by the end of the primary, she was one of the most popular figures in the state because of that. So that was really key in getting us through the primary. And that was a very smart and strategic move that our team kind of made.

Nir: So Alejandro, you mentioned there were two progressive candidates and two conservative candidates. The conservatives were Jennifer Dorow and Dan Kelly, and it was Dan Kelly who wound up advancing to the general election. In the primary though, the race for second place was very close, Protasiewicz won the first slot going away. I mean, you went from third place all the way to a huge first; you got 46% of the vote. And Kelly edged out Dorow 24 to 22 for that second slot. And Kelly had some help from progressives and Democrats.

Verdin: Yeah, I think the campaign itself, we were rooting for Kelly. In retrospect, we still would’ve beaten Dorow in a general election because she just had so many liabilities as well that came out. But at the same time, we kind of saw her as more of a stronger candidate, so we wanted Dan Kelly. And whatever efforts were done were definitely helpful. But I will say that I think one of the funniest things that I have ever experienced on a campaign was on this race. I think Dan Kelly was just such an interesting figure, kind of not your typical candidate. We had heard that in focus groups done for Jill Karofsky, there was kind of like a picture of Dan Kelly kind of held up and-

Nir: And Jill Karofsky was an incumbent, now an incumbent justice on the Supreme Court. But she also, she’s the one who beat Dan Kelly when he was an appointed incumbent.

Verdin: Absolutely. So Justice Jill Karofsky, a current member of the state Supreme Court ran against him before and beat him by 10 points. We heard that in focus groups done before, someone held a picture up of Dan Kelly. One guy blurted in the middle of the focus group that “This guy looks like a horse fucker.” And we’re all like, “Is this a real thing? Oh my God, Jesus. That’s such an uncommon insult.” So this was sort of an internal joke that we all kind of laughed about because it was just such a weird thing. But then weirdly, we started hearing it on the campaign trail from other people.

Nir: What?

Verdin: And no, I don’t have any breaking news, but on the campaign trail, totally unrelated to this stuff where I think we were in Green Bay or somewhere, a man made a comment at an event hall, “Dan Kelly fornicated with horses.” Once again, we’re taking it back and we were like, “What the… This is weird. What’s going on? Does this guy actually look like that? How does a person look like that?”

Nir: And I want to make clear, this is just people talking shit. This isn’t even a rumor. This is nonsense. This is just people reacting to this guy’s face and being very salty about it.

Verdin: Well, and it was really weird. So this was an internal joke to begin with for the campaign. But Ben Nuckels, our media consultant, decided to kind of take things to another level. He literally hid visuals of horses in nearly every negative ad he produced against Dan Kelly. You don’t see it. We didn’t catch him.

Nir: Oh my God.

Verdin: And he did it really well. But for the listeners, if you go to Jennifer Justice on YouTube, you will see hidden horses on shelves. There are hidden horses in the backdrops of the TV ads. There are hidden horses on tables behind our testimonials. So, go to Jennifer Justice on YouTube, play Find the Horse, and see if you can find him. But this was hilarious. Knuckles even designed a radio ad that started with the horse sound featured to count like a cowboy voiceover taunting conservatives, just trying to demotivate these folks. I can play it. Or do you want to play it? I have it if you want. I don’t know if it makes sense to play it now.

Audio: There goes Dirty Dan Kelly, riding off into the sunset with his pathetic, dishonest campaign. He’s badly trailing Judge Janet Protasiewicz. So, Dan and his friends are trying to pickle your brain with lies.

Nir: I have to say, I was not expecting this interview to go in this direction, Alejandro.

Verdin: I’m sorry. Maybe this is the last time I get to be on “The Downballot.” But the thing that was so funny about it was that was, one, it’s just an uncommon insult. Two, it’s just like a very weird thing. And three, the funniest thing about this is that Dan Kelly, his father was a cowboy from the west. None of us knew this. And Dan Kelly himself was a horseman. I think he has a horse farm in Wisconsin or something like that. And so he became so desperate on the campaign trail that he started talking about his dad being a cowboy on the trail. He was just clawing at any way to try to connect with voters, and it completely failed. So Ben decided to make this ad of the voiceover. It was a direct response to Kelly because we only played it on conservative radio where he would hear it. So it was quite hilarious.

Nir: Wow. That is definitely a unique story. Have you shared that publicly before?

Verdin: No. This is breaking here on “The Downballot.” No one knows about this. We have saved this bit of information for your listeners, so I hope you all enjoy it, and I hope you get to hear the ad.

Nir: Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. So just to be clear, when progressives were boosting Kelly ahead of the primary, this wasn’t quite like a Claire McCaskill situation where her campaign was the one doing the spending. This was third-party groups. Your campaign was not involved in that effort?

Verdin: No, not at all. Our campaign was laser-focused on talking to voters about Janet and her positions, introducing her to the electorate and making sure that folks understood what was at stake, and we had nothing to do with that.

Beard: Now I want to turn to one of the reasons that I think your campaign won Campaign of the Year last year, which was the decision to sort of put forward these much more aggressive than usual stances on issues like abortion and gerrymandering. Like you said at the top of the interview, a lot of these judicial campaigns historically had been very state elections, talking about qualifications and experience and things of that nature that don’t really connect directly with voters and the issues they care about. Your campaign was not afraid to go into abortion, to go into gerrymandering, and talk about Janet’s values around these issues.

Verdin: Yeah, I mean, we took a very serious risk, right? This wasn’t something that was done before. One of the largest strategic risks we decided early on in the campaign was that Judge Janet should speak about her personal values. In particular, she publicly stated that her personal value was that she believed women should have the freedom to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion. She stated her personal value that voters should pick their politicians and not the other way around, and that political boundaries should be fair and without partisan influence, not gerrymandered. And so her key message around this: she was for freedom and fairness and public safety.

And this had not been done before in major judicial elections in Wisconsin and perhaps the country. In the end, the voters rewarded her for her transparency. And I think this being a huge risk, we understood that the key was that we needed to create a narrative that voters latch onto and remember because people are just so used to the, “I’m going to follow the law, I’m going to follow the constitution, and I’m going to uphold our state’s laws,” and that’s all fine and dandy.

Those are things that she also believed in, but we knew that we needed to do something different. So we had to maintain a simple but powerful narrative that she was impartial, she was a common-sense judge who cared about us, while Dan Kelly was an extremist who didn’t care about you, and those were all really key decisions.

I think the other strategic decision that was made in the general was that we understood that the Republicans would fight us on crime. They would try to paint us as softy liberals, and Janet was for crime and was going to make our streets less safe, even though the Supreme Court literally doesn’t see those kinds of issues. So we made another strategic decision to take that issue away from our opponent, Dan Kelly. We took their strength away and we didn’t allow them to paint us as what they would want.

We went on the offensive. We attacked Dan Kelly because he provided legal counsel to a convicted child sex predator and early research and polling showed that violent crime and public safety was the second issue on top of voters’ minds, 1% less than abortion. We knew that abortion would be the main driver and the main driver in turnout, but we couldn’t risk them attacking us or hitting us hard.

So we took that off the table from them, and that was key in doing that, not being afraid about talking about public safety and being smart on it and all of those things. And she had the bona fides to talk about that because she was a DA in Milwaukee County and she was a judge for 10-plus years. And so she had the credentials and she could talk about it in a way that if we were going to be attacked about it, people weren’t really going to believe it, if that makes sense.

Beard: Now, I think once the primary finished and everyone saw how strong your campaign did in the first round, like we said, getting 46% of the vote and Dan Kelly narrowly advancing to second, I think folks started to feel like Judge Janet was the favorite going into the general at that point. But I think if you ask a lot of conservatives in Wisconsin, my suspicion would say they would be like, “Oh, if only we’d gotten Dorow through the primary, we could have really had a much stronger go at it.” But I assume the campaign was prepared for either of those candidates. So how would your strategy have changed had Judge Dorow advanced instead of Kelly?

Verdin: We were absolutely prepared for either outcome, although we hoped for what had happened. We were prepared that Dorow would advance. We were so prepared that we had produced attack ads in the primary on Jennifer Dorow that were canned and sent to the TV stations on the day of the election.

Beard: Wow.

Verdin: So that the day after the election, we were attacking her. So we understood that we could not give up a day or two. And I think we saw that in the Wisconsin Senate race where Mandela Barnes ran a very strong primary campaign and I think was left to hang out weeks after and was silent on television. No fault of the campaign itself, but the resources just were not there after such a brutal primary.

So we understood that we could not stop communicating to voters about Janet, but also we had to go on the offensive and attack immediately after. So yeah, I’m bummed out those ads never got to see the light of day, but they’re also great ones.

Nir: I want to circle back to something you were talking about a moment ago, Alejandro. Did you get any pushback either privately or maybe publicly from the traditional legal establishment in terms of Judge Janet stating these values that she held about abortion, about gerrymandering? And I used to be a lawyer. I totally understand how conservative… non-political sense, but just how risk-averse lawyers typically are, especially once you get into the realm of judicial politics. And so I can easily see your typical judicial legal establishment saying, “Oh, this is inappropriate.”

To be clear, when Protasiewicz said that the maps were rigged and that she believed in a woman’s right to choose, we were cheering. When I say we, I mean Daily Kos Elections, progressives who are knowledgeable about elections and really active. You know we felt, hey, these guys on the other side, their judicial candidates are always talking about how they’re “pro-life” and they’re getting endorsed by these right-to-life groups or whatever and they don’t hide their views.  Well, it’s about damn time that we don’t hide our views, but I imagine that not everyone felt that way.

Verdin: Absolutely. And we did get a lot of pushback, and I think because people just were so unused to this, this was very different. People never saw a campaign like this. I think Justice Rebecca Dallet and Justice Jill Karofsky ran more forward-facing campaigns in this sense too, but didn’t push the envelope as much as we did. And yeah, attorneys and judges, supporters of ours across the state were very worried and were very convinced that this would blow back and that this would be an issue. So we had to weather the storm when talking internally with folks, and we had to show folks the research and show folks that, “Hey, this is the pathway to win and trust the process and trust the team and trust that we can do this.”

I think to judge Janet’s credit, she understood that this was necessary to win, and she understood and trusted the campaign plan and the plan that we set out for it. So I think obviously having the buy-in of the principal and the candidate is key, and we’re very grateful that she trusted us to run this campaign this way, but it was very hard. It was an issue, and there were a lot of hard discussions around this with folks who were very close to the campaign.

I think moving forward for the next Supreme Court races, you’re going to see that these campaigns are going to potentially be run in the same style, and that’s a good thing.

Beard: So speaking of future Supreme Court races, of course, there’s not a race for any of the seats in 2024, but in 2025, one of the liberal Justices, Ann Walsh Bradley is up for reelection. So how is that race shaping up? Have we seen any other candidates? I believe we do know that Bradley is running for reelection, right?

Verdin: Yes. Yeah, she’s running for reelection and there’s currently one conservative candidate running, the former Attorney General, Brad Schimel, who lost to AG Josh Kaul. It’s starting to shape up and it’s starting to become interesting. Ann Walsh is an incredible legal mind and has just so much experience on the bench. It’s definitely going to be an interesting campaign. Brad Schimel is an interesting character as well, I think. I don’t know if maybe Republicans are overshooting in terms of the candidate quality this time around. He is a former AG. He has a track record of his own. He has campaigned and has said things on the campaign trail.

Something he really did, which was really weird, is when he was the AG, he printed his own coin. He had his own coin minted and used taxpayer money to do it, and the coin says, “Kick ass every day.” So this guy is a hardliner. He’s been endorsed by pro-life orgs. He’s anti-abortion. He has a track record of being a partisan hack and I think it’s going to be interesting because I think maybe they’re overshooting a little bit because Dan Kelly was different in the sense that he wasn’t going to state his position on any issue. He was literally not going to tell you what he believed in, even though he was also endorsed by anti-abortion groups and pro-life groups, and was also really heavily backed by the Republican Party.

He campaigned as a purist where I think the former AG is not, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out, but I think let’s not forget that if you’re an incumbent in Wisconsin, that’s a strong suit. And Ann Walsh Bradley is someone who has been incredible on the bench and people love her, right? And a name that is well-known in the state. So it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Nir: We have been talking with Alejandro Verdin who managed Janet Protasiewicz’s extremely successful campaign for the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin in 2023. Alejandro, before we let you go, where can listeners find you online and learn more about upcoming races for the Wisconsin Court?

Verdin: Thank you for having me. And you can find me on Twitter, or X I should say, @SalsaVerdin. Once again, that is @SalsaVerdin, like salsa verde, but my last name’s Verdin. I didn’t come up with that one, so I can’t take that one. Or if you want to visit nineteensixtycampaigns.com spelled out, that’s where you can shoot me an email or give me a call.

Nir: Well, Alejandro, we’re very glad that you stopped by to pick up your reward. We didn’t want it collecting dust on our shelves too much longer. We look forward to checking back in with you when that 2025 race comes into view.

Verdin: Thank you both. On behalf of Wisconsin, we appreciate the award and thank you all for covering this race so well.

Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Alejandro Verdin for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing [email protected]. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.


January 2024