Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal judge from Milwaukee County, will face off against former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, a conservative, after both advanced in the state Supreme Court primary election Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
The general election, scheduled for April 4, could have crucial implications for the future of state issues like abortion access, legislative maps and other pressing concerns for Wisconsin families.
Protasiewicz sailed to a first-place finish Tuesday, notching just over 46.5% of the vote — more than both conservative candidates combined, per preliminary Wisconsin Elections Commission estimates. Kelly came in second over conservative Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, who finished 20,000 votes shy of Kelly’s 24.2% vote share. Liberal Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell finished fourth with 7.5% of the vote.
Last year, Dorow presided over the trial of a man who killed six people by driving through a Waukesha Christmas parade. She made the case a focal point of various ads throughout her campaign.
Turnout in Tuesday’s election reached nearly 21% — a sharp increase from 16% turnout during Wisconsin’s last Supreme Court race in 2020, according to NBC News. Liberals Protasiewicz and Mitchell collectively garnered 54% of the vote compared to conservatives’ 46%, aided by high turnout in Democratic-leaning Dane County.
A Protasiewicz win in April would change the balance of the state Supreme Court, which has been majority conservative since 2008. Protasiewicz has rallied against current legislation forbidding abortion and Wisconsin’s gerrymandered district maps on the campaign trail, signaling she would vote against both if elected to a new 4-3 liberal majority.
“My only client has ever been the state of Wisconsin,” Protasiewicz said in a victory speech Tuesday night. “I can tell people are ready for a change, and I don’t think we would’ve seen the election results we saw if people weren’t ready for a change.”
Protasiewicz has accused the current state Supreme Court of using “tortured and convoluted reasoning” to reach partisan outcomes that match their own views, according to her campaign website.
Kelly is a self-described judicial conservative and former state Supreme Court Justice appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2016. Kelly lost his re-election bid in 2020 to Justice Jill Karofsky, receiving 44.7% of the vote.
“I am truly grateful to my fellow Wisconsinites who threw their votes to reaffirm the centrality of the Constitution to the work of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Kelly said in a victory speech Tuesday night.
Kelly and Protasiewicz are vying to replace retiring Justice Patience Roggensack, who has served since 2003. Roggensack endorsed Judge Dorow in the primary race.
Wisconsin Democrats are pulling for Protasiewicz, who they believed could flip the table on issues like abortion and gerrymandering in their endorsement Tuesday. Ben Winkler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Protasiewicz would bring “Wisconsin common sense” to the court in a statement accompanying the endorsement.
“This election will determine whether the Supreme Court gives a fair hearing to cases involving the freedom to access a safe and legal abortion, the constitutionality of rigged legislative districts and profound questions around voting rights and democracy,” Wikler added.
Kelly is backed by many Wisconsin Republicans, including Wisconsin GOP chairman Brian Schimming.
“Wisconsin voters can count on Dan Kelly to uphold the rule of law, protect our rights and help keep our communities safe from violent criminals,” Schimming said Wednesday.
The 2023 election is projected to be the most expensive state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin history, with candidates and outside groups spending over $6 million during the primary election itself and total spending projected to exceed $10 million, per NBC News.