On Tuesday, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Justice Daniel Kelly advanced in the primary race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the most closely watched election of 2023. Protasiewicz won with 437,700 votes (46.4%), more than the 228,625 votes (24.2%) for Kelly and the 206,278 votes (21.9%) for Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow combined. The runoff is scheduled for April 4.
The Wisconsin court has been in right-wing hands for 15 years, but an open seat created by the retirement of Justice Patience Roggensack creates an opportunity for liberals to regain the majority. With high-stakes fights over Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political map, the state’s 1849 ban on abortion, and voter suppression legislation passed last session likely to come before the court soon, the runoff between Protasiewicz and Kelly could end up being the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history.
More than $9.2 million has already been spent on TV and digital ads, according to AdImpact, which tracks media spending, with $2.8 million coming from GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein’s Fair Courts America PAC, and $2 million from the liberal dark money group A Better Wisconsin Together, which went to attacking Dorow.
Fair Courts America, an offshoot of the Uihlein-bankrolled Restoration PAC, has pledged to do whatever it takes to elect Kelly, who had been appointed to the court in 2016 by then Gov. Scott Walker (R) but only served until 2020 since then Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky defeated him in his first election.
Deeply tied to the GOP and the right-wing infrastructure in Wisconsin, Kelly is the former president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a former member of the advisory panel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and a former member of the legal team that defended the 2011 Wisconsin gerrymander.
Kelly is also fiercely partisan. A 2023 Statement of Economic Interests he filed for 2022 obtained and first reported by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) shows that he was employed by the Republican Party through December 2022. The Journal Sentinel subsequently reported that the GOP had paid him $120,000 to work on “election integrity” and to “advise on fake electors.”
In addition, the anti-abortion Women Speak Out PAC, affiliated with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has spent $142,900 on mailers, phone calls, and texts in support of Kelly.
True North Research, led by CMD Board President Lisa Graves, has published a series of fact sheets on some of the right-wing dark money groups expected to continue to spend big in Wisconsin in the weeks before the April runoff:
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