Democrats win key state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin

April 5, 2023

Democrats have gained control of Wisconsin's Supreme Court after winning a pivotal race Tuesday night.

Liberal Milwaukee Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated conservative former justice Daniel Kelly by 12 points. The results are a warning to Republicans in the Midwestern state that will be pivotal to regaining the White House in 2024.

Top Democrats including Barack Obama had lobbied Democrats to start voting early in the contest, which ended up being the most expensive judicial race ever.

Dems win big

Protasiewicz ran as an unapologetic liberal defender of abortion and what liberals call “our democracy.” She said her victory was a rebuke of her rival’s “extremism.”

"It was really about saving our democracy, getting away from extremism and having a fair and impartial court where everybody gets a fair shot in the courtroom," Protasiewicz told The Associated Press. "That's what it was all about.”

Kelly had raised concern about his opponent’s partisan temperament and crime record, which included lenient punishments for rapists.

Protasiewicz may soon have the opportunity to weigh in on a legal challenge to the state's near-total abortion ban. She had also hinted she would overturn the state’s legislative maps, saying they unfairly favored Republicans.

Heated rhetoric

The campaign saw some bitter rhetoric. Protasiewicz all but characterized her rival as a terrorist, a “true threat to our democracy,” over his role in Donald Trump’s so-called “fake electors” scheme. Kelly was also backed by major pro-life groups.

In a fiery concession speech, Kelly said his opponent was “beneath contempt,” saying she “made her campaign about cynical appeals to political passions, serial lies, and a blatant disregard for judicial ethics and the integrity of the court."

"I wish Wisconsin the best of luck," he said. "I think it will need it."

2024 warning

Beyond the implications for policy, the election was seen as a bad omen for Republicans in the next presidential election. Trump narrowly won the pivotal battleground state in 2016, then lost it by about 20,000 votes in 2020.

The results Tuesday left Republicans to point the finger, with some blaming an abortion backlash, or inaction from the GOP, or former President Trump, who mocked “foolish” Kelly for not seeking his endorsement.

"Daniel Kelly of Wisconsin just lost his Supreme Court Election. He bragged that he won’t seek Trump’s Endorsement, so I didn’t give it—which guaranteed his loss. How foolish is a man that doesn’t seek an Endorsement that would have won him the Election?”

Kelly, who ran as a non-partisan candidate, said he wasn't interested in political endorsements.

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