MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated former Justice Dan Kelly by a wide margin late Tuesday in the race for an open Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, transforming the state’s political landscape.
Protasiewicz’s election gives the court its first liberal majority in 15 years, poising it to hear challenges to Wisconsin’s abortion ban, voting maps and other Democratic priorities.
“Our state is taking a step forward to a better, brighter future where our rights and freedoms will be protected,” Protasiewicz said in her victory speech Tuesday. “While there is still work to be done, tonight we celebrate this historic victory that has obviously reignited hope in so many of us.”
The Associated Press called the race for Protasiewicz less than an hour after polls closed. As of 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Protasiewicz led 55.5% to Kelly’s 45.5% with 99% of the vote counted, according to tracking by POLITICO. In 2020, Kelly lost to Justice Jill Karofsky by about 11 points statewide.
In Dane County, a liberal stronghold key to Democratic turnout, Protasiewicz received 82% of the vote compared to Kelly’s 18%, with most precincts reporting. Kelly lost the county by a similar margin to liberal Justice Jill Karofsky in 2020.
Kelly’s statement following his loss referenced disputes about political ads and Protasiewicz’s comments on abortion and maps, which he said showed a “blatant disregard for judicial ethics and the integrity of the court.”
“I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede,” Kelly said.
Abortion, voting maps central to campaign
Protasiewicz campaigned heavily against Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban and Republican-drawn voting maps, which she and her supporters called “rigged” on multiple occasions.
Wisconsin Democrats gathered at the Saint Kate Hotel in Milwaukee erupted into cheers as the race was called for Protasiewicz.
Democrats spent previous months attempting and failing to eliminate Wisconsin’s near-total abortion ban, which took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. The issue is expected to come before the state court’s newfound liberal majority, who Democrats expect would strike the ban.
Wisconsin’s voting maps could also land before the new court. The maps, which heavily favor Republicans, enabled the GOP to maintain sizable Assembly and Senate majorities in the past decade — even when Democratic candidates outperformed Republican opponents by multiple points.
Protasiewicz told the Cap Times in February she would “enjoy taking a fresh look” at the Republican-drawn maps installed by a 4-3 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling last year.
“Throughout my career, I’ve seen our judicial system up close, and I believe in something that is universal to Wisconsinites all across our state and that is that everyone should get a fair shot to demand justice and not feel like the thumb is on the scale against them,” Protasiewicz said Tuesday.
Campaigns visited campus ahead of election
Both judicial campaigns visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison ahead of Election Day. Kelly spoke to the College Republicans and Republican Party of Dane County last week. Former Lt. Gov. and U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes and Justice Jill Karofsky campaigned for Protasiewicz.
Lines for polls on UW-Eau Claire’s campus also drew attention on Twitter, highlighting the importance of college-age voters on Tuesday.
Sarah Nehls, vote coordinator for the Associated Students of Madison, said she and other organizers worked for months to galvanize UW-Madison students ahead of Tuesday’s election.
Preliminary voting data was “really, really impressive” as of late Tuesday, according to Nehls. She said final results could rival student turnout numbers from the 2022 elections, when campus voting wards averaged just shy of 60% turnout among registered voters, according to state elections data.
“This is likely a record-breaking spring election, especially here on campus,” Nehls said. “Students clearly made their voices heard.”
Protasiewicz will assume her state Supreme Court seat on Aug. 1.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 to reflect updated vote totals.
Hope Karnopp is the news manager and dabbles in music reviews at The Daily Cardinal. She previously hosted the Cardinal Call for WORT-FM and edited state news.
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.