MILWAUKEE — The general election for the swing seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, a momentous contest that will determine whether Republicans maintain or lose their iron grip on the state’s politics, will feature a liberal Milwaukee County judge against a conservative former justice of the state’s high court.
Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal from the Milwaukee suburbs, and Daniel Kelly, a former Supreme Court justice who lost his seat in a 2020 election, advanced in a Tuesday primary to the April 4 general election, according to The Associated Press. The winner of the race, the most consequential American election on the 2023 calendar, will serve a 10-year term.
While Judge Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz) sailed to a first-place finish in the officially nonpartisan primary, Justice Kelly placed second, ahead of 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, Judge Protasiewicz had about 46 percent of the vote, Justice Kelly had 24 percent and Judge Dorow had 22 percent.
If Judge Protasiewicz prevails in six weeks, it would tip the balance of the state’s seven-member Supreme Court, which has been controlled by conservatives since 2008.
The court would 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 Tuesday night.
If Justice Kelly wins, abortion is certain to remain illegal in nearly all cases. He also said in an interview on Monday that he had no intention in revisiting the maps adopted by Republican legislators.
“When a map gets challenged in court, the responsibility of the court is to fix the legal defects, not the political defects,” he said in Sheboygan. “Our courts are not built to decide political issues, just legal issues.”
Justice Kelly has condemned Judge Protasiewicz for telegraphing how she would rule in key cases expected to come before the court on abortion and gerrymandering. But he has hardly been shy about signaling his own politics. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that Justice Kelly had since 2020 been on the payroll of the Republican National Committee to work on “election integrity issues.”
During his victory remarks Tuesday, Justice Kelly said Judge Protasiewicz represented an “assault on our Constitution and our liberties.” If she wins, he said, “we will lose the rule of law and find ourselves saddled with the rule of Janet.”
Influential Democrats in Wisconsin coalesced long ago behind Judge Protasiewicz, 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.
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 before returning to deliver a concession speech.
“I came up a little short,” she told supporters. “I’m disappointed but I’m really happy that I get to support a conservative candidate going forward.”
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 Wisconsin contest, 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, whose campaign did not spend any money on television advertising during the primary campaign, has used his deep-pocketed supporters as a reason to vote for him. 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, whose super PAC has spent $2.8 million to back him so far and pledged to spend millions more on his behalf.
The state’s Democrats and Judge Protasiewicz’s campaign believed Judge Dorow would be a stronger opponent in the general election. 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.