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How a Wisconsin Supreme Court race could impact the presidential election

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is little room for any other news. But this Tuesday, April 7, Wisconsin is poised to make news as it holds primaries that include a critical Supreme Court race. 

Democrats fought to turn the election into an all vote-by-mail affair in order to protect voters. But the Republican-led state legislature on Saturday voted to hold in-person voting this Tuesday.

This election could profoundly affect the country, with many saying that Wisconsin is the “tipping point” state in the November presidential election.

Why does this Supreme Court race matter? Because Trump allies have proposed a massive purge of Wisconsin voters using suspect data. They want to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning voters. 

Why else would the Wisconsin GOP intentionally kick hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters off the rolls in this swing state?

Justice Dan Kelly, an incumbent with an exceedingly thin résumé, was appointed by former Governor Scott Walker. He’s been endorsed by President Trump, and he’s running his “nonpartisan” campaign out of the Wisconsin Republican Party Headquarters. Kelly has recused himself from that voter purge case, but he signaled last month he would likely rejoin the case after this election.

Nothing less than our democracy is at stake in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. No one knows what other shenanigans conservative special interests will try to pull off through the court. But on Tuesday, when voters also pick presidential candidates, mayors and school board directors, the integrity of the November election in Wisconsin, and the nation, is surely on the ballot. 

Judge Jill Karofsky, who serves on a criminal court bench in Dane County, is the progressive candidate. I know Jill very well, as we were undergraduates together at Duke University. After college, we both moved to Washington, D.C., where Jill worked on Capitol Hill and then returned to Wisconsin to earn her law degree. 

She built a long and distinguished career as a prosecutor and victims’ advocate, serving two Republican attorneys general as a statewide domestic violence prosecutor and director of the office of crime victim services. She was then elected to the bench. 

The Democratic Party has embraced her candidacy, pumping $1.3 million into her campaign. But Jill is still getting outspent on the airwaves by massive amounts of money run through the national Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the state chamber of commerce. These players want to not only elect Kelly but guarantee victory for Trump in Wisconsin in November.

But they need to deceive voters in order to do it. The ads run by the RSLC earned a “Pants on Fire” from PolitiFact for outright lying about Karofsky’s record as a criminal prosecutor. Karofsky has sued the RSLC, but false ads are still running with millions of dollars of television time behind them.

Dan Kelly had zero prosecutorial or judicial experience when Scott Walker plucked him from the advisory board of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Kelly oversaw defending some of the Walker administration’s most partisan actions, including redistricting maps in 2011 that have helped Republicans keep control of both houses of the legislature. 

That same Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty tried at least six cases in front of the Supreme Court since 2016. Kelly didn’t recuse himself from a single one and ruled in their favor every time.

And guess who is pushing the voter purge case? The Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty.

Meanwhile, Karofsky has been on offense throughout the campaign. She has called out Kelly’s corruption, and earned the support of current and former high court justices, a bipartisan group of law enforcement officials, almost every elected Democrat in the state, organized labor, Planned Parenthood and Wisconsin Conservation Voters. Her three-decade legal career dwarfs Kelly’s experience and shows a clear commitment to a functioning and fair judicial system where everyone is treated equally.

Her accomplishments don’t end in the courtroom. Karofsky’s a two-time Ironman triathlete, an accomplished long-distance runner (she finished a 50-mile run in the middle of her campaign) and a single mom to two teenagers. 

It would be easy to overlook a non-partisan judicial race in the middle of the country right now. With wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and Donald Trump turning his daily briefings into a two-hour reality train wreck, it is hard to focus on anything else. 

But we must. The outcome of this race could have a dramatic impact on the general election, and it’s certain to affect how laws are applied in Wisconsin for at least the next decade.

The Republicans are pulling out all the stops. While Donald Trump tweets about this race, Republicans in Wisconsin are refusing to consider allowing the state’s voters to vote by mail and stay safe next Tuesday. They either don’t mind putting voters at risk, or they believe voters will be scared to show up and that low turnout will benefit their unqualified candidate. 

Why else would the Republican National Committee send lawyers to oppose any delay in the April 7 election, oppose mandating absentee ballots be sent to every registered voter for a mail-only election and oppose making absentee voting easier? When a federal judge extended the deadline for voters to return their absentee ballots, the RNC opposed that too.

With all the uncertainty surrounding this election, it’s more important than ever for voters to rally around Judge Jill Karofsky. We need to know that the law will be upheld in Wisconsin, and that the national general election in November will be fair and untainted.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is a sacred institution that Wisconsinites depend on to protect their rights. Dan Kelly’s razor-thin experience and the misguided personal extremist agenda he’s brought to the court denigrate the confidence and trust the institution should inspire.    

For a fair, tough and independent justice, Wisconsin voters have a clear candidate in Jill Karofsky. She will give families and communities a more just and representative Supreme Court.

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws committee for the party’s 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.