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How Trump And National Politics Impact Local Elections


It's been said that all politics is local, but elections around the country this year are challenging that notion. That's especially true in Wisconsin, where candidates for the state's open Supreme Court seat are talking about President Trump. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Normally, candidates in officially nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court races would spend their time discussing judicial philosophy or who's tougher on crime. And you could see some of that when Judge Rebecca Dallet released her first TV ad in this race. There was footage of Dallet wearing her black robe in a courtroom. But what stood out in this spot was the beginning. She started it with grainy, black-and-white footage of President Donald Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's attacked our civil rights and our values. She'll protect them.

JOHNSON: Another candidate for the court, attorney Tim Burns, has gone even farther. At a recent forum hosted by the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society, Burns told the conservative lawyers and judges in attendance that they were to blame for Trump's presidency, calling the president a, quote, "perverse show dog."


TIM BURNS: You now helped that demagogue pack our federal courts, and you sit silently by as he destroys our moral standing in the world.

JOHNSON: In Wisconsin, candidates for state Supreme Court have typically found ways to hint at their partisan leanings without coming out and saying it, but they haven't nationalized what's really a state race. Former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske can't remember candidates ever attacking a president the way they have this year.

JANINE GESKE: No. You know, and it was interesting when I ran way back when. Sometimes, when you went to small towns, that's what people wanted to talk about, were national issues and things. And we were just saying, you know, that's really not what the Supreme Court deals with.

JOHNSON: Geske thinks there's a lot to be said for having the judicial branch more detached from politics. However...

GESKE: These are odd political times, so it might not work in a future election. But it's probably a good time to try it considering all the turmoil in our political system.

JOHNSON: Tim Burns is the one going all in on this. He's described himself in no uncertain terms as a liberal and a Democrat, and says Trump's victory in 2016 is part of the reason he decided to run for the court. Speaking after the Federalist Society debate where he attacks Trump, Burns says that candor is what the public expects from candidates.

BURNS: Most people think the key issue of the day is we have a megalomaniac in Washington. And if I don't speak to that, what do - am I to voters in the sense of telling them what my values are? They want to know.

JOHNSON: Former Justice Geske says Burns has likely forced Dallet's hand in this race. That's because they're potentially chasing the same bloc of voters. Both Burns and Dallet condemned Trump recently when he reportedly made disparaging remarks about several African nations. They also pressured the conservative candidate in the race, Judge Michael Screnock, to take a stand on the president's remarks. Screnock did not, and he says he won't.

MICHAEL SCRENOCK: I don't comment on what our mayors say. I don't comment on what our county board chairperson says. I don't comment on what the governor says or what the president says. It's not the role of a judge to weigh into those things.

JOHNSON: The top two vote-getters in the February primary will advance to the April election. The question is, who's taking the bigger gamble - the candidates tapping into the national mood or the candidate avoiding it? For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGOS' "BAD AND BOUJEE (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.