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Wisconsin Primary Results, Coronavirus Challenges Biden's Campaign

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maybe you saw those pictures last week of all the voters in Wisconsin standing in long lines, attempting to social distance while casting their ballots in the state's primary. Well, today, we have got the results. As expected, Joe Biden won in the Democratic presidential primary, but there were some down-ballot surprises. Maayan Silver of member station WUWM joins us now to talk about them. Hi, Maayan.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So the biggest upset of the night actually came in a state Supreme Court race. What happened there?

SILVER: Yeah. So liberal-backed candidate Jill Karofsky beat the Trump-endorsed incumbent Daniel Kelly. She held a socially distant victory party. It was just Karofsky and her two kids, and she thanked her team and supporters. But she also had a caveat.

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JILL KAROFSKY: Look - we shouldn't have had an election on Tuesday. And for many, many people, they had to decide between whether or not they were going to risk their own health or the health of people they loved or their lives or the lives of people that they loved in order to vote. It was an untenable decision.

SILVER: The GOP-controlled Legislature and the conservative majority in the state Supreme Court had fought hard to hold the election date in place despite calls to postpone or change to all mail-in. So this was a big defeat for them.

MARTIN: A lot of Democrats had said they were worried that holding an election under these circumstances amounted to voter suppression. Looking at the results, is there any evidence of that?

SILVER: Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez had called this election voter suppression on steroids. And in larger cities, voters reported waits on average of one to two hours, up to four hours. Some voters just couldn't wait that long or didn't want to brave the polls and risk their health. Nearly 10,000 voters requested mail-in ballots on time and didn't get them. And there were post office problems and postmark problems.

So there were voters who were disenfranchised, and we'll never know just what turnout would have been if it hadn't been for coronavirus. But all in all, 1.1 million mail-in ballots were requested and returned. That makes the total vote count right in line or even higher than previous state Supreme Court races and also on par with other presidential primaries. So Wisconsin made this huge transition from being a state where a majority of voters cast ballots in person on election day to a majority mailing in their ballots.

MARTIN: So just briefly, is that what's going to happen in the fall?

SILVER: Well, so based on Republicans' opposition to proposals for all-mail-in election this time around, it's possible we could get a replay of the long lines and few polling places. But it's possible that their opinions could change after this election, seeing that mail-in turnout very high among both Republicans and Democrats. So it's not just something Democrats do. It also depends on where we are with coronavirus.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. Maayan Silver of WUWM in Milwaukee. We appreciate it. Thank you.

SILVER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: The Wisconsin win is no doubt good for Joe Biden, but even more significant news for his campaign yesterday - getting the endorsement of one Bernie Sanders.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Today, I am asking all Americans, I'm asking every Democrat, I'm asking every independent, I'm asking a lot of Republicans, to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy, which I endorse, to make certain that we defeat somebody who I believe - and I'm speaking just for myself now - is the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country.

MARTIN: But Biden has been struggling to hold onto attention and reach voters amid the coronavirus pandemic. Karen Finney is a Democratic strategist. She was senior spokesperson for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. And she is on the line with us now to talk about what has really become an unprecedented campaign. Karen, hi.

KAREN FINNEY: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: Oh, could this thing get any more historic?

FINNEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So what did you make of Sanders' endorsement? I mean, how does it compare, specifically, to when he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016?

FINNEY: Well, it was very strong. And I'll tell you one of the most important things, and I give Senator Sanders a lot of credit for this. He ran a tremendous race, and he gave a really full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden and recognizing the gap in the number of delegates and that he couldn't really make that up. He stepped forward early, and doing it long - you know, before we're at convention because, as you may recall in 2016, there were some - you know, right into the convention...

MARTIN: Right.

FINNEY: ...It was kind of sticky, right?

MARTIN: Sticky is a nice way to put it, yeah. Not good.

FINNEY: (Laughter) It was not good. However, what it means now is that the full Democratic Party and our progressive allies can be focused 100% on how to defeat Donald Trump, but also - as you know, as you were just talking about with Wisconsin - we know that voting in November, we have to prepare for that as well. That's definitely a real issue top of mind.

MARTIN: Are Bernie Sanders' supporters going to show up for Joe Biden, do you think? What kind of concessions might Biden have to make?

FINNEY: Well, I think, you know, certainly, when it comes to - it's complicated, right? Because I think, certainly, when it comes to thinking about where the economy is going to be and the kind of recovery we're going to be needing to be thinking about - obviously, Vice President Biden has been through that when he and President Obama took office in 2009, so he has some ideas. I'm sure Senator Sanders, as we know, has some very specific ideas. And I think you've seen Vice President Biden start to move towards some of those ideas.

I know "Medicare for All" is one that Senator Sanders is going to keep pushing. I don't see Biden doing that. I would - I think he will stick to expanding Obamacare, which, you know, again, in the middle of this COVID crisis, a lot of these ideas, I think, now seem much more reasonable to people who were doubting these ideas some time ago because it's laying bare some of these, you know, just huge fissures in our economy and our health care system. So I could see those being the two key areas where they'll have conversation.

MARTIN: Just briefly, in seconds remaining, you're a strategist - how do you advise Joe Biden in this moment when he can't go have rallies? He can't go get - you know, lock eyes with a voter, put his hands on their shoulders as he does and communicate his message. He's got to be all virtual.

FINNEY: Yeah. You know what? You know, by being virtual, though, I mean, just be the contrast to the kind of meltdown, the sort of daily unhinged meltdown we see coming out of the White House that doesn't make many people - it doesn't make us feel more confident or comfortable or trustworthy. Be the guy who just shows calm. Be the guy who shows calm and has a plan...

MARTIN: OK.

FINNEY: ...And shows empathy for the people.

MARTIN: Democratic strategist Karen Finney. Thanks, Karen. We appreciate you this morning.

FINNEY: You're welcome. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "SMARRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.