Five things to know ahead of final Wisconsin Supreme Court election

Wisconsinites will have the final say Tuesday in a consequential state Supreme Court election that will determine the high court’s ideological makeup and its expected decisions on key issues such as abortion and redistricting.

Though the judicial election is technically nonpartisan, voters must decide between Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz – identified as a liberal candidate – and former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly – a conservative candidate.

Protasiewicz and Kelly were the two top vote-getters in last month’s primary, which was the first leg of the race to fill the open seat vacated by conservative Justice Patience Roggensack.

The race has become one of the most expensive and closely watched contests in the country, as the court could weigh in on the state’s 1849 abortion ban, redistricting, and possible future election result disputes.

Here are five things to know about the Wisconsin Supreme Court race ahead of next Tuesday:

It’s a battle between a liberal candidate and a conservative

Protasiewicz and Kelly are advancing to the April 4 election to determine who will replace Roggensack on the high court. 

The race is understood to be nonpartisan in name only. Protasiewicz has been outspoken on several issues, including her support for abortion rights, and notably called the state’s legislative maps “rigged.” She’s also received support from Democratic names and groups like Hillary Clinton, NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation and Emily’s List.

Kelly has been less clear during the race about how he’d rule on some issues like abortion, though he has been backed by several prominent anti-abortion groups in the state. The Associated Press reported Kelly has done some work for Wisconsin Right to Life, though the group has said he was not on their payroll. Past clients of his have also included the state GOP. 

Both candidates used their first and only debate last week to suggest they would be fair and impartial judges. Kelly said he’s made no commitments to abortion opponent groups that have supported him, particularly regarding the 1849 law that would criminalize abortion with few exceptions.

Protasiewicz has said she’d recuse herself from cases relating to the state Democratic Party.

Abortion, redistricting loom over the race

A lawsuit that could determine abortion rights in Wisconsin for years to come is expected to make its way up to the state Supreme Court following Tuesday’s election.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) filed a lawsuit last June to block the state’s 173-year-old ban on abortion, arguing the 1849 law conflicts with modern abortion legislation. The ban, which offers very limited exceptions for the medical procedure, was triggered after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to access abortion.

Kelly has received endorsements from groups opposed to abortion rights, such as Wisconsin Right to Life; while Protasiewicz has received the backing from proponents of abortion rights including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

Experts also believe that legal challenges to Wisconsin’s legislative maps could be brought to the state Supreme Court if Protasiewicz wins the election. Protasiewicz has previously denounced the state maps. saying in a debate, “I don’t think anybody thinks those maps are fair. Anybody.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has also backed Protasiewicz and will be campaigning for her ahead of the election, according to NBC News. The Republican State Leadership Committee’s  (RSLC) judicial arm, the Justice Fairness Initiative, also spent six figures on an ad buy for Kelly.

Another test on attitudes toward crime

While there’s been plenty of focus on abortion and redistricting in the race, Kelly’s campaign and outside GOP groups are looking to garner voter turnout by campaigning on crime. One ad launched by Kelly’s campaign includes several law enforcement officers backing the former Supreme Court justice and targeting Protasiewicz on her record of criminal sentencing as a judge.

Another ad, launched by WMC Issues Mobilization Council, accuses Protasiewicz of giving lenient sentencing to a criminal defendant accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. 

The Milwaukee County circuit judge defended her record on criminal sentencing during the pair’s only debate, arguing “I have sentenced thousands of people. And it’s interesting that a handful of cases have been cherry-picked and selected and twisted, and insufficient facts have been provided to the electorate.”

Money is pouring into the race

Millions of dollars are being spent in the race, with Protasiewicz’s campaign vastly out fundraising that of Kelly’s.

Campaign filing reports published on Monday found Kelly’s campaign had raised roughly $2.2 million between Feb. 7 and March 20, while Protasiewicz’s campaign had raised close to $12.4 million in that same time frame. One analysis of the race by published on Wednesday suggests that spending in the race is approaching close to $45 million when spending from outside groups are factored in.

The sheer amount of money being spent in the race underscores Wisconsin’s status as among a handful of pivotal battleground states for both Democrats and Republicans. Party control has remained divided within the state, though Republicans enjoy a legislative edge. Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, and both parties in the Senate.

The state also has a GOP-dominated state legislature, and Wisconsin’s congressional delegation in the House has a 6-2 Republican majority.

National spotlight on Wisconsin race

While state judicial races tend to receive more attention at the local or state level, the Wisconsin Supreme Court race has dominated the national spotlight.

Former President Obama has encouraged Wisconsinites to head to the polls, and Hillary Clinton has notably endorsed Protasiewicz. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has donated $20,000 to Protasiewicz’s campaign, according to campaign documents filed on Monday. Leonard Leo, the co-chairman and former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, has donated $20,000 to Kelly’s campaign. 

While the state Supreme Court elections could have implications for issues like abortion and redistricting, the high court could also hear potential lawsuits challenging the 2024 presidential election results. In 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court narrowly upheld President Biden’s win in Wisconsin and rejected legal challenges from former President Trump to contest the results.

Tags 2024 presidential election abortion rights redistricting wisconsin supreme court

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