Big money has started flowing into a pivotal Supreme Court race in Wisconsin, as reports filed yesterday with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission indicate. They give a first glimpse into where some of the largest donors are lining up.
The primary to fill the open court seat being vacated by conservative Justice Patience Roggensack will be held on February 21, with the top two vote-getters in the nominally nonpartisan contest advancing to a runoff on April 4.
The election of a liberal judge to replace Roggensack would flip the court to a 4–3 liberal advantage. In light of likely upcoming fights over Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political map, the state’s 1849 ban on abortion, and voter suppression legislation passed last session, Politico has called it “the most important election nobody’s ever heard of.”
Liberal-leaning Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge Janet Protasiewicz has outpaced all of the other candidates by raising $756,000 over the past six months, bringing her 2022 total to $924,000—almost three times as much as the closest contender. The other liberal-leaning candidate, Dane County Circuit Court judge Everett Mitchell, reported raising $140,000 from over 1,500 small donors last year.
Yet, the largest contributions—$20,000 each, the maximum individuals can give to candidates in the race—went to former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and came from billionaires Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of shipping supplies manufacturer Uline. Kelly, a right-wing judge who was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) but lost his first election to liberal judge Jill Karofsky in 2020, raised just over $312,000 last year.
The Uihleins—who pumped $5.8 million into reelecting Trump ally Ron Johnson (R–WI) to the U.S. Senate last year—have the potential to dominate spending in this year’s Supreme Court race. Fair Courts America, an offshoot of the Uihlein-bankrolled Restoration PAC, has pledged to do whatever it takes to elect Kelly.
“Fair Courts America is committed to spending millions of dollars to help educate voters in support of Justice Dan Kelly,” notes spokesperson Dan Curry in a press release. “He is a consistent conservative with impeccable judgment and superior intellect. In these turbulent times, we cannot take a chance on untested, unproven alternatives.”
It appears that Kelly can count on backing from a right-wing infrastructure that also includes the Bradley Foundation‘s leadership. In addition to the Uihleins, Rick Graber, Bradley’s president and CEO, and Patrick English, vice chairman of its board of directors, contributed to the Kelly campaign, according to the campaign finance filing. It also shows that Kelly has the support of two Koch network donors: Fred Young and billionaire Stanley Hubbard.
Kelly disclosed receiving compensation in 2022 from the Bradley Foundation and two Bradley-funded nonprofits, the Liberty Justice Center and Institute for Reforming Government, the Center for Media and Democracy recently reported.
The other conservative candidate, Waukesha County Circuit Court judge Jennifer Dorow, raised $307,000 in 2022. Dorow, who has been endorsed by outgoing Justice Roggensack, presided over the trial of the man convicted of driving a truck through a holiday parade in Waukesha that killed six people and injured 60 more on Nov. 21, 2021.
Kelly and Dorow will court the vote of Republican lawyers at an “exclusive meet and greet” on January 31 at The Milwaukee Club, “Milwaukee’s Premier Business & Social Club.”
No independent expenditures have been reported yet.
Editor’s note: This piece originally stated that Dorow had “presided over the trial of the man convicted of a mass shooting at a holiday parade in Waukesha that killed six people and injured 60 more on Nov. 21, 2021.” There was no mass shooting. The man drove a truck through the parade. The article has been corrected.