Janet Protasiewicz, Daniel Kelly advance in high stakes, high-spending Supreme Court race

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly emerged Tuesday as the two winners of a record-setting primary fight to compete for a seat on the state’s highest court that will decide whether the most consequential state policies will be upended.

Protasiewicz, a liberal jurist whose campaign fundraising dwarfed her three primary opponents combined, received by far the most votes in the race — 46% of the total votes counted as of 10 p.m. In second place was Kelly, a judicial conservative who received 24% of the votes.

The outcome of Tuesday's primary election pits Protasiewicz's campaign of restoring abortion access in Wisconsin against Kelly's message of such political campaigning in a judicial race being "a danger to our liberties."

The issue of abortion is central to the race after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, putting back into effect a 19th Century-era state law that bans abortion in all cases unless the woman will die without one − a policy at odds with the majority of Wisconsin voters according to recent state polling.

After receiving more votes than her two conservative challengers received combined, Protasiewicz was direct with supporters about where she stood on a lawsuit likely heading to the court that seeks to repeal the state’s abortion ban.

“I'll be running against someone who doesn't think women get to make their own reproductive rights. I will guarantee you that my opponent, if elected, will uphold the 1849 near-total abortion ban. I can guarantee you that," she told supporters gathered at The Cooperage event venue in Milwaukee.

In Waukesha County, Kelly told supporters he plans to talk to as many Wisconsinites as possible about the importance of the Constitution — "how it protects our liberties, and the brave and novel threat that Janet Protasiewicz is to the Supreme Court."

"She's promised to put her thumb on the scales of justice, to make sure that cases come out the way she wants them to come out, rather than on based on what the law commands," Kelly said Tuesday night, repeating what he often said on the campaign trail. "This is an ancient form of dishonesty that has been universally condemned for thousands of years."

Protasiewicz outpolled Kelly in traditional GOP stronghold Waukesha County

Tuesday's vote totals showed a more liberal-leaning electorate than voted in the 2022 race for governor, according to Marquette University Law School poll director Charles Franklin.

In Waukesha County, for example, Protasiewicz got 33% of the vote to Kelly's 19%. Kelly told reporters the primary results don't worry him.

"Now it's time to talk about the dangers that Janet presents to our court, and the dangers she presents to our liberties. I'm confident that people all over the state of Wisconsin are going to be supporting my campaign," he said.

Protasiewicz said Tuesday she has been "very careful to say what my personal values are and the way cases are determined on won't be decided on personal values."

"But I know from going around the state what people care about," she said. "People are extremely concerned about women's productive rights, are extremely concerned about the 2024 presidential election and whether or not that's going to come into our Supreme Court chamber... they are extraordinarily concerned that they don't believe our Supreme Court is working."

Ideological balance of the Supreme Court on the line April 4

Should Protasiewicz defeat Kelly in the April 4 spring election, liberal justices would take control of the court — a shift that would all but guarantee rulings that would repeal the state's abortion ban and a host of Republican-written laws. The consequence of losing control of the court for conservatives has drawn heavy spending on behalf of Kelly, including millions promised by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein.

The stakes of this year's state Supreme Court race range from how routine cases like criminal appeals are decided to watershed rulings, including whether Republicans will continue to control the state Legislature by wide margins and how lawsuits over the next presidential race will be handled. The race is on pace to be the most expensive in U.S. history, a distinction that underscores its stakes for a battleground state at ceaseless political war.

Protasiewicz and Kelly defeated Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, a conservative, and Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, a liberal, after a primary race that topped $9 million in ad spending – a record for a Supreme Court primary.

Kelly's victory comes after groups aligned with Kelly and Democrats spent millions to attack Dorow, who was seen by Democrats as a more formidable candidate. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin late Tuesday had already begun labeling Kelly a "MAGA extremist," referring to Trump's endorsement of Kelly in 2020 and work Kelly did that year advising state GOP leaders while they crafted a plan to submit false paperwork claiming to be electors for Trump.

During the primary, Kelly questioned Dorow’s conservative bona fides in an effort to consolidate Republican voter support behind him.

"We came up a little short," Dorow told her supporters on Tuesday. "We know that with Dan Kelly, he will be fair, he will be impartial."

Dorow was surrounded by her husband and two of her children as she spoke from the small stage at the Golden Mast Inn on Okauchee Lake. Her daughter Kiki sobbed as Dorow conceded the race.

Dorow's bid for the state Supreme Court divided the GOP base, with prominent Republicans like conservative icon Mike Grebe, radio show host Mark Belling, congressmen and legislative leaders lining up to support Dorow, whom they believed would be more appealing to voters, especially in a year where abortion is top of mind for female voters.

More:Bice: Sparks fly in Wisconsin Supreme Court race after Jennifer Dorow's sentence is overturned as too lenient

Dorow gained prominence over Waukesha Christmas parade trial

Dorow rose to national prominence last year for her handling of the trial of a Milwaukee man accused of purposefully driving his SUV through a crowded Christmas parade in Waukesha, killing six people and injuring dozens more.

Kelly had begun campaigning months before Dorow entered the race and had already secured the backing of prominent conservative jurists like Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley and state Appeals Court judge Shelley Grogan. Uihlein also poured millions into the race on behalf of Kelly.

In all, $2.2 million was spent by Democrats alone attacking Dorow in ads, according to ad spending tracking group AdImpact.

Brian Schimming, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, on Monday acknowledged Republicans' need to unify to avoid another situation like the 2022 Republican primary for governor that featured another battle that divided the GOP electorate ahead of the general election.

"Conservative candidates and their supporters need to come together after tomorrow night. Like at 8:00 pm," he tweeted.

This story originally included incorrect information about the nature of advertising paid for by Fair Courts America. The group spent millions on ads promoting Kelly. The story has been updated and corrected.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Supreme Court election results for 2023 spring primary