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Key takeaways from the week's Midwest elections

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Two of the biggest elections of the year took place this past week. Both were big wins for progressives, and both had national implications. In Wisconsin, an unabashedly liberal judge named Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the state Supreme Court. That's after she explicitly campaigned for abortion rights and against Republican-gerrymandered maps.

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JANET PROTASIEWICZ: I have been very, very forthright that my personal value is that women have a right to choose.

DETROW: Meanwhile, in Chicago, a progressive named Brandon Johnson defeated a centrist Democrat to become the next city's mayor. What's it all mean going forward? NPR's Kelsey Snell has been following these races, and she joins me now. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

DETROW: So let's start with Wisconsin with that win that gave liberals, Democrats, even though they - you know, it's technically a nonpartisan race...

SNELL: Right.

DETROW: ...Control over the state Supreme Court. What are the big takeaways?

SNELL: I want to start with the fact that Janet Protasiewicz won this race by 11 points. And this is in a state that is not known for having big margins, particularly in a year that, you know, there's not a lot else on the ballot. This isn't a presidential year. Now, this tells us that abortion was a huge motivator for Democrats. And this issue is really not losing any salience for voters.

Democrats have been, you know, not as motivated in voting for judicial issues in the past. And this is actually a kind of a turn for them. And if you talk to activists, they say they hope this is a start of a long-term shift for the party where they start to focus more on these judicial races to address some of the issues that they care about the most.

Now, returning to that point about it being nonpartisan, another thing that was different about this was that she did run on politics. Often, we don't see that being part of a judicial race. It's supposed to be about the law and not about the politics. And, you know, this is another thing where we see a little bit of a shift and a possibility that this could be the way judicial races go from here.

DETROW: And on one hand, it was kind of jarring to see that. But on the other hand, there are such key issues at stake. And it's so clear that this court would be deciding them that I guess it makes sense.

SNELL: It does. And, you know, voters largely view the courts as being more and more political. This is kind of a change that has been happening over a long period of time. So it isn't surprising in that sense.

DETROW: OK. So let's look at Chicago. This was an interesting mayoral election. This was a runoff after a contentious initial first round of voting. What happened?

SNELL: Well, this is kind of a classic story of Democrats sorting out their internal differences. Brandon...

DETROW: Very quietly and you know, everyone getting along, right?

SNELL: Absolutely.

DETROW: Chicago Democrats, that's always the theme.

SNELL: Well, the story here is Brandon Johnson, who is a Black man in his 40s who was running a progressive message against Paul Vallas, who is a white man in his 60s who was running a campaign on law and order and business development. So you really see that split and different ways that Democrats can define themselves. And they really took different approaches on crime specifically. Vallas called for more police, and Johnson talked about a public safety approach and broader societal issues, with a focus on education and health care and housing.

DETROW: Looking ahead to an almost certain re-election bid, we have seen President Joe Biden lean into the centrist aspects of his record, and we have particularly seen him try to take a more tough-on-crime approach than a lot of progressive Democrats like to see. Biden has clearly been trying to insulate himself from Republican attacks on Democrats being soft on crime. So do you have any thoughts on what these results mean for Joe Biden?

SNELL: Well, Joe Biden has also been trying to insulate himself against attacks from Republicans on a lot of fronts. He negotiated with more centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin, and he worked with Republicans on big things like infrastructure. So Biden does have this record of having kind of a more centrist approach to governing. But, you know, a lot of progressives say that they have effectively moved the base of the party to the left over time and that, you know, when they run in a general election and as they move forward, those conversations will also move to the left.

DETROW: So if the party is split on some of those key issues but, at the same time, looking at those Wisconsin results, sees abortion, which is an issue that most Democratic voters generally agree on - they see that that is a winning issue that is winning a lot of moderate and independent voters, is that what we can expect to see a focus on as a unifying and energizing message?

SNELL: Yeah. I - as I talk to Democrats, I hear them talking about abortion, and I hear them talking about commonsense approaches to gun control. I think those are two messages that they see as winning opportunities. They also seem to really be focusing on the idea that they are the party of common sense in general and that Republicans are - in the term that they like to use - are the party of extreme MAGA - so tying some of these social issues where Democrats have an advantage in the polls to former President Trump and his liabilities and personal issues that also poll really poorly.

DETROW: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thanks for coming by.

SNELL: Always glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.