Liberal Judge Is First to Advance in Major Wisconsin Supreme Court Election
MILWAUKEE — Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee County judge, won her race on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press, and advanced to the general election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the most consequential American election on the 2023 calendar.
On April 4, Judge Protasiewicz will face one of two conservatives for a 10-year term on the court: Daniel Kelly, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, or Jennifer Dorow, a Waukesha County judge known for presiding over the trial last fall of a man who killed six people by driving through a 2021 Christmas parade. Late Tuesday, The A.P. had not yet projected which candidate would advance along with Judge Protasiewicz.
The winner of the officially nonpartisan race will tip the balance of the state’s seven-member Supreme Court, which has been controlled by conservatives since 2008. If Judge Protasiewicz prevails, the court will have a four-member liberal majority that would be likely to overturn the state’s 1849 law forbidding abortion in nearly all cases, redraw Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps, and influence how the state’s 10 electoral votes are awarded after the 2024 presidential election.
“Everything we care about is going to be determined by who wins this election,” Judge Protasiewicz told supporters in a victory speech on Tuesday night.
Influential Democrats in Wisconsin coalesced long ago behind Judge Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz), who has endorsements from a range of top party officials and de facto support from many others. The other liberal candidate in the race, Everett Mitchell, a judge in Dane County, which includes Madison, lagged far behind the other three major candidates in fund-raising.
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Republicans split between Justice Kelly, who lost a 2020 election for a full term after being appointed in 2016 by Gov. Scott Walker, and Judge Dorow, whom Mr. Walker appointed to the Waukesha court.
The fight for conservative votes grew increasingly bitter in the closing days before Tuesday’s primary election. Justice Kelly said in interviews on conservative talk radio and at campaign stops that he would not commit to endorsing Judge Dorow if she advanced to the general election, while Judge Dorow’s supporters argued that Justice Kelly was unelectable based on his performance in 2020, when he lost by 10 percentage points.
About two-tenths of a mile separated the election night parties for Justice Kelly and Judge Dorow in Waukesha County.
At the Smoke on the Water tavern, Justice Kelly mingled with supporters starting well before polls closed, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and looking relaxed as snow fell on Okauchee Lake, visible out the window.
Judge Dorow briefly appeared at her campaign party after polls closed, then disappeared from view. About 100 supporters greeted her in a lakeside ballroom at the Golden Mast Inn. The parties had in common a picturesque view of Okauchee Lake after dark, snowflakes reflected in the glow of outdoor deck lights.
The race is all but certain to become the most expensive judicial election in American history, topping the $15 million spent on a 2004 race for the Illinois Supreme Court. Already, more than $8.7 million has been spent on television and digital advertising in the Supreme Court race, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.
Officials in both parties expect tens of millions more to be spent by each side during the six-week general election.
Justice Kelly has used his deep-pocketed supporters as a reason to vote for him in the primary. He told conservatives gathered at a Republican Party dinner this month in Sawyer County that they should back him because he had the support of the billionaire Uihlein family, which has pledged to spend millions of dollars on his behalf. Justice Kelly said the Uihleins would not back Judge Dorow in the general election.
“If it’s not me in the general election, I don’t think that money just moves over to Jennifer,” Justice Kelly said. “It just won’t be spent. So if I’m not the candidate in the general election, Jennifer will jump in completely unarmed when the left is going to spend up to $25 million.”
The state’s Democrats and Judge Protasiewicz’s campaign believe Judge Dorow would be a stronger general election opponent. A Better Wisconsin Together, a Democratic super PAC, spent more than $2 million on television ads before the primary attacking Judge Dorow. The Uihleins’ super PAC, Fair Courts America, spent $2.7 million backing Mr. Kelly and attacking Judge Protasiewicz.
Dan Simmons contributed reporting from Okauchee Lake, Wis.