CHICAGO — Democrats from the upper Midwest to the White House were brimming with confidence after Tuesday’s wins in Wisconsin and Chicago, believing President Joe Biden was handed a template for crucial battlegrounds once he moves forward his reelection bid.
Already, top party officials and operatives were sketching out the beginnings of a 2024 campaign playbook that again leans heavily into shielding abortion rights and doesn’t shy away from taking more nuanced approaches to tackling crime. The twin victories — in the Chicago mayoral race and for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — had emboldened their belief that voters were more repelled by the GOP brand — colored by anti-abortion politics and personified by former President Donald Trump — than by accusations that Democrats were soft on crime.
Left-leaning Janet Protasiewicz won resoundingly in her bid for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, despite being labeled “No Jail Janet” by her opponents. Democrats noted that her opponent, Dan Kelly, was connected to a plan to reverse the 2020 election results.
Similarly, Brandon Johnson, a Chicago union organizer, was hammered by his rival for previously leaning into the “defund the police” movement. But he stressed that his opponent Paul Vallas was not actually a Democrat, forcing him to repeatedly defend his credentials.
Both Protasiewicz and Johnson prevailed.
“Voters showed that they understand public safety to be much more nuanced than the way the Republicans try to frame it. That this is not just about having adequate law enforcement on the streets to promote public safety, but also about investing in mental health and substance use treatment and addressing poverty,” Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said in an interview with POLITICO. “There are not just the short-term efforts to address crime, but also the long-term efforts.”
While both of Tuesday night’s races were nonpartisan, they did each contain a left vs. right ideological contrast that offered a temperature reading as to where voters stood on key issues. Johnson emphasized taxes on the ultrarich, while Protasiewicz played up protection for abortion rights as well as voters’ concerns about threats to U.S. democracy.
The through-line issue, however, was crime.
It wasn’t lost on state or national officials that had Johnson lost the race, they would have been forced to push back hard on the narrative that his “defund” position cost them the keys to City Hall. Instead, while concerns over crime did indeed dominate the race, voters weren’t buying solutions that simply called for adding more police. And they rejected the controversial police union that went hard after Johnson.
“The narrative coming out of the first election was that voters were scared out of their wits,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist and pollster. “Now, after the last election, the story is that while voters are scared, they aren’t out of their wits.”
Pritzker, who helped raise critical money for TV ads in Protasiewicz’s race, said the GOP tactic to paint Democrats as soft on crime was also used in the midterms, and didn’t work then in Illinois and several key battleground states, either.
“We all got attacked on the simplistic vision of Republicans and we all are folks who believe you’ve got to address public safety in a nuanced and multifaceted fashion. We’ve said that to the voters and they responded,” Pritzker said.
“We saw it over and over again,” he added, pointing to the 2022 Democratic victories of Govs. Tim Walz of Minnesota, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers of Wisconsin as well as his own in Illinois.
In Pritzker’s race last year, his conservative opponent, Darren Bailey, hammered the governor over Chicago’s persistent crime problem. Pritzker said polling showed crime was “an important issue” to voters, “but that didn’t mean they wanted to choose the more conservative or Republican candidate. That bore itself out.”
The same thing happened in Tuesday’s mayoral election in Chicago, said Pritzker, who did not endorse in the race that saw Mayor Lori Lightfoot shut out after the first round of voting. Her administration’s handling of crime was attacked by the eight candidates she faced in the first round, including Johnson and Vallas.
Vallas, a former public schools chief, latched on to people’s fears about carjackings in neighborhoods that hadn’t experienced it to the extent they do now. He proposed ramping up police officers on the streets and talked about opening schools for alternative programming for young adults.
Johnson, who had previously said defunding police was “a goal,” insisted during the race that he wasn’t suggesting taking funds away from police. He said he supported adding 200 detectives to solve crimes and funding social services programs that get to the heart of the crime problem.
The attention on Chicago and its handling of crime was on the radar of the national Democratic Party, too, with Biden weighing where the 2024 Democratic convention should be held. Chicago is a finalist, as are New York and Atlanta.
Pritzker called the Midwest “a blue wall” for Democrats, adding, “that was proven out last night. I do think that this puts us in the pole position to win the convention.”
Some in the Chicago contingent pushing their DNC bid had worried that Vallas winning the mayor’s race would complicate their efforts given critical remarks he had made about Chicago itself and a slew of top elected leaders, including Pritzker. They were heartened by the fact that Biden and DNC officials waited until the mayor’s race was over to decide.
For Biden, however, the greater impact is likely in Wisconsin, a state that’s central to his chances in 2024. On Wednesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre connected the string of Democratic wins on abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
“Americans want the freedom to make reproductive health care decisions without government interference,” Jean-Pierre said. “Yet, though, you see that Republican elected officials are more committed than ever to attack those fundamental freedoms that Americans should have.”
Brian Stryker, a Democratic strategist who conducted polling for Protasiewicz, said the state’s 1849 abortion ban was very much top of mind for voters in Wisconsin. As were questions about whether the elected officials there would certify future contests. That Protasiewicz performed so well in suburban counties should serve as a potent signal to Democrats across the region, he said.
Garin agreed, but went even further.
“Wisconsin is evidence of a backlash against the MAGA power-grab and their assault on democracy and the rule of the people,” he said. “And Democrats in 2024 would be wise to tap into that.”
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