Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal judge from Milwaukee, secured a decisive win against former Justice Daniel Kelly, in a highly anticipated and record-breaking election for a highly sought-after slot on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Protasiewicz’s victory pulls control away from conservatives who have had it for a fifteen-year duration, making her the deciding vote on critical topics such as abortion rights, political maps and even possibly the 2024 presidential race.
Both the candidates had made it through the primary elections held in February for the retiring Justice Patience Roggensack’s seat.
Protasiewicz led at the initial stages and with 71% of the votes counted, had received 56.1% of the vote compared to Kelly’s 43.8%, according to the Associated Press.
The conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court.
The Tuesday election was the most expensive state judicial contest in the US history, with special interest groups, as well as billionaire mega-donors, pumping a whopping $45 million into it. These donors included liberal George Soros and Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who have two of the deepest pockets in conservative politics.
Officials from both sides claimed that the stakes of the nominally nonpartisan race were high.
Democrats saw the showdown as their only shot at ending the Republican’s reign on the battleground state.
“If Republicans keep their hammerlock on the state Supreme Court majority, Wisconsin remains stuck in an undemocratic doom loop,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said before the election.
Former United States Attorney General Eric Holder, who had campaigned for Protasiewicz over the weekend, concurs.
“This is the most important election in this country in 2023,” he said during a get-out-the-vote stop in Waukesha.
The voters seemed to agree, with Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk, stating that voter turnout, coupled with early voting, may break a state record despite rainy weather in the county.
Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that the stakes were monumental.
The main issues that the race focused on were crime, gerrymandering, and abortion.
Democrats viewed the win as the only way of reversing the state’s 19th-century abortion ban. Protasiewicz has openly voiced her support for abortion rights, inviting criticism for neglecting impartiality in her campaign. She has also called the state’s election maps “rigged”, running much of her race along partisan congressional lines, including receiving nearly $9 million from the state Democratic Party, which also organized canvassing efforts on her behalf.
“Everything we care about is on the line,” she said after casting her vote on Tuesday. “From our democracy to start with, our gerrymandered maps, women’s ability to make their healthcare decisions, everything we care about is on the line.”
Kelly has repeatedly questioned Protasiewicz’s ability to remain unbiased on the pressing issues. He has also been clear on his stance on the state’s future. He has raised eyebrows with controversial blog posts on same-sex marriage and stated that government programs such as Medicare and Social Security aim at stealing from taxpayers and akin to slavery. Kelly and his allies have also criticized Protasiewicz for being lax on crime.
Additionally, he has argued that abortion access promotes “sexual libertinism”, earning him support from Wisconsin’s three most extensive anti-abortion groups, although he hasn’t specified how he would rule on the issue.
Wisconsin’s election was viewed as a bellwether. Twenty-one states directly elect justices to their highest court, while another 17 make them stand for retention elections after they’ve been appointed. More than two dozen states held their elections for their top courts last year after the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, issued by the US Supreme Court, overturned access to abortion. The results of those races were mixed. Wisconsin’s election was different as it was the first time the issue was displayed at the top of the ballot, meaning that it wasn’t overshadowed by other state or national races.
Tuesday’s outcome will likely provide insight into the national attitudes towards abortion and could alter the political parties’ approaches to the topic in their campaigns, including the 2024 presidential race.
Wisconsin has played a crucial role in four of the past six presidential elections, where the victor was determined by less than a percentage point. In 2020, former President Donald Trump, who pleaded not guilty to 34 criminal counts of falsifying business records and conspiracy on Tuesday, unsuccessfully turned to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn his 21,000-vote defeat.
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