Liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz crushed her opponent on Tuesday in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election. The outcome of the contest will likely determine the fate of abortion rights and other key issues in the top presidential battleground.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court — an advantage that’s helped the right lock in power for the Republican-dominated legislature. But Protasiewicz’s win could provide a new check on the state GOP. She will be sworn in this summer.
The contest between former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a conservative, and Protasiewicz has been unusually contentious for a judicial campaign. The lone general election debate between the two was cutting, and the opposing sides lobbed brutal attack ads back and forth.
Kelly acknowledged his loss on Tuesday evening, but savaged the now-justice elect in his concession speech.”I wish in circumstances like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent, but I do not have a worthy opponent,” he said, calling Protasiewicz’ campaign “beneath contempt” that launched “rancid slanders.” He said she would damage the integrity of the court.
Protasiewicz struck a more optimistic tone. “It means that our democracy will always prevail,” she said at her victory night party. “Too many have tried to overturn the will of the people. Today’s result shows that Wisconsinites believe in democracy and the democratic process.”
The election has drawn outside national press — and a gusher of money.
Spending in the race exploded and surpassed $45 million as of late last week, according to WisPolitics.com, roughly tripling the previous state judicial race record.
There were some signs that the money is translating into more voters. The February primary for this seat drew the highest-ever turnout for a spring primary contest — more than 960,000 voters. Over a fifth of voters showed up for for that election — which typically has turnout percentages in the low-to-mid teens.
The outcome of the race will determine the course of everything from an 1840s abortion ban winding its way through the courts to congressional and legislative maps that all but ensure GOP control. It could also have implications for the 2024 presidential election in the crucial swing state.
“People ask me … whether it’s the most important race,” said Brian Schimming, the chair of the state Republican Party. “And I always say this is the most consequential race facing Wisconsin in decades.”
Nearly 410,000 people had voted early.
The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on access to abortion in the state in the coming months. Wisconsin has a 19th-century law on the books that bans abortion in almost all circumstances that will eventually land in front of the state Supreme Court. In the interim, providers in the state have stopped performing the procedure.
Pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups poured millions into the contest, and those involved say it has drawn out an intense groundswell of grassroots supporters on both sides.
Protasiewicz and her allies have made it central to the campaign. “Reproductive freedom and access to safe and legal abortion is the central, defining issue in this race,” Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said in an interview.
Abortion was mentioned in roughly a third of television ads coming from Protasiewicz’s campaign and other allied groups, according to data from the ad tracking service AdImpact. It was virtually non-existent in ads from the other side, appearing in just 1 percent of ads.
The race could also have a significant impact on the state’s congressional and legislative lines. Despite the state being close to 50-50 in most statewide elections, Republicans are on the cusp of supermajorities in both chambers, and the state’s congressional districts have a firm tilt toward the GOP.
Democrats in the state are eager to challenge the lines, and Protasiewicz regularly calls the maps unfair.
Her campaign pointed out that Kelly worked for the state Republican Party, and has recently charged that Kelly is also saying how he would rule on future cases in interviews.
The state has elected governors, senators and presidents on razor-thin margins for years, with a competitive Senate race — and presidential contest — on tap for next year.