Supreme Court Justice candidate Daniel Kelly emerged victorious from Tuesday’s primary election, but the conservative finished a distant second to his opponent, far left Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz.
While Kelly and fellow conservative candidate, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, divided up the right side vote (24 percent and 22 percent, respectively), Protasiewicz grabbed 46.5 percent on her own.
Add liberal Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell’s 7.5 percent to the vote tally, and the numbers scream one clear point: Conservatives have their work cut out for themselves in the April general election.
The two liberal candidates for the court took in a combined 54 percent of the primary vote, while the two conservative candidates secured roughly 46 percent of the ballot.
Conservatives are worried.
“We have six weeks to get every national conservative involved in this or else everything conservatives built in Wisconsin during the @ScottWalkerera comes crashing down instantly,” tweeted conservative talk show host Dan O’Donnell.
Kelly’s cause won’t be helped by Dorow backers still smarting from what they saw as Kelly’s unfair attacks on his fellow conservative candidates conservative credentials. Liberals relished what they painted as a bruising feud. Conservative voters will have to heal and unite quickly if they have any chance of winning the critical Supreme Court seat.
“Conservative candidates and their supporters need to come together after tomorrow night. Like at 8:00 pm,” Wisconsin GOP chairman Brian Schimming tweeted on election night.
The primary voting numbers are cause for worry. The money may be a bigger concern.
Protasiewicz took in nearly $2.2 million in campaign donations — much of it from big money, left-wing interests pre-primary. That hefty contribution haul is expected to explode now that Protasiewicz is officially the left’s anointed. Kelly, by comparison, had raised about $467,000 in donations. But outside groups thus far have spent some $2.59 million supporting Kelly, according to a new report by the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
All together, special interest groups have dumped $5.6 million into the Supreme Court election, already breaking the previous record $5.03 million set in the 2020 Wisconsin. Liberal PAC A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund spent $2.15 million in opposing Dorow. Fair Courts America, funded by conservative billionaire businessman Richard Uihlein, laid out $2.37 million backing Kelly.
The race is on target to be the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history.
Much is at stake.
Abortion ‘Morning, Noon and Night’
The nationally watched election will determine whether conservatives or liberals control Wisconsin’s high court. Conservatives currently hold a narrow 4-3 majority, with long-time Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack set to retire this summer. Either Kelly or Protasiewicz will take Roggensack’s seat.
Wisconsin and national liberals have made the race a life and death struggle. There certainly are a lot of lives on the line. Protasiewicz, a full-throated supporter of abortion, is seen by the left as the savior of abortion-on-demand in a state with a law that prohibits abortion in all but rare cases. That law, dating back to the beginning of Wisconsin statehood, sprang back to life following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer overturning Roe v. Wade.
“It’s going to be abortion morning, noon and night,” State Senator Kelda Roys (D-Madison was quoted in a New York Times piece about the importance of the abortion issue in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race. The Times proclaimed the election “carries bigger policy stakes than any other contest in America in 2023.”
“The April race, for a seat on the state’s evenly divided Supreme Court, will determine the fate of abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative maps and the Wisconsin governor’s appointment powers — and perhaps even influence the state’s 2024 presidential election,” the publication reported. “Wisconsin, as a battleground state, could once again play a big role in deciding the next president.”
A Marquette University Law School poll in September found 61 percent of respondents are opposed to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended federal protection of abortion. But polls nationally have consistently found that Americans don’t agree with the minority of voters (around 20 percent) who believe in no restrictions — abortion on demand “morning, noon and night.”
Communicating that message will be critical for conservatives who support Kelly, who has campaigned on the “centrality of our Constitution” in the work of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Kelly has prior experience on Wisconsin’s high court. Former Republican Governor Scott Walker appointed Kelly to the court to fill the remaining term of Justice David Prosser, who retired in 2016. Kelly lost his bid for a full 10-year term in 2020 to liberal Justice Jill Karofsky.
Checking Tony Evers
April’s election is about much more than abortion, however, contrary to Roys and crew.
As O’Donnell noted in his text, the Republican-controlled Legislature’s power to check Democrat Gov. Tony Evers is also on the line. Evers, backed heavily by unions, has long sought to kill Act 10, Walker’s signature public union collective bargaining law, and other reform measures. Evers has, unsuccessfully, attempted to rewrite Wisconsin’s political maps to shift electoral advantage back to Democrats. And he has seen a litany of far left initiatives, from radical climate change programs to “equity” measures, stalled by the GOP majority in the Legislature.
All of these laws and policies are ripe for revisitation by a liberal Supreme Court. Protasiewicz has said she embraces the “progressive label.”
And the Republican Party of Wisconsin in particular is going to make the liberal’s “soft on crime” record as a judge and former prosecutor a significant part of the campaign. The state GOP this week launched a new website, NoJailJanet.com, detailing Protasiewicz’s record, including several cases in which the judge gave no prison time to several child sex offenders.
“The best indication of what someone will do in the future is what they have done in the past,” said RPW spokeswoman Rachel Reisner. “Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s record of giving no jail or prison time to violent sexual offenders disqualifies her from serving on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
But the left is ready to attack Kelly as well, pushing the message near and far that the former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice is a “radical conservative.”
No one knows more than Kelly how difficult the next six weeks will be. For the Supreme Court candidate, the election is a battle for the preservation of the constitution.
“But there is much work to be done before we can truly celebrate, because this is going to be an election like no other,” he said in a statement following his primary victory. “Tonight we join battle in the fight to preserve our constitutional form of government against a novel and grave threat: Janet Protasiewicz’s promise to set aside our law and our Constitution whenever they conflict with her personal ‘values.’”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Janet Protasiewicz” by Janet Protasiewicz. Photo “Daniel Kelly” by Daniel Kelly. Background Photo “Wisconsin Supreme Court” by Royalbroil. CC BY-SA 3.0.