In Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Democratic Turnout Was High

In Wisconsin Supreme Court Race, Democratic Turnout Was High

In Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Democratic Turnout Was High

Democratic turnout was high in the Tuesday primary for the State Supreme Court, ahead of a costly general election that will decide the future of abortion rights and gerrymandered maps in the state.

MILWAUKEE — Eight months after the nation’s highest court made abortion illegal in Wisconsin, a liberal State Supreme Court candidate who made reproductive rights the centerpiece of her campaign won more votes than her two conservative opponents combined.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election on Tuesday was a triumph for the state’s liberals. In addition to capturing 54 percent of the vote in the four-way, officially nonpartisan primary, they will face a conservative opponent in the general election who was last seen losing a 2020 court election by double digits. 

It proved to be a best-case scenario for Wisconsin Democrats, who for years have framed the April 4 general election for the State Supreme Court as their last chance to stop Republicans from solidifying their grip on the state. Republicans took control of the state government in 2011 and drew themselves legislative maps to ensure perpetual power over the state’s Legislature, despite the 50-50 nature of Wisconsin politics.

“If Republicans keep their hammerlock on the State Supreme Court majority, Wisconsin remains stuck in an undemocratic doom loop,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Now, with an opportunity to retake a majority on the State Supreme Court that could undo Wisconsin’s 1849 ban on nearly all abortions and throw out the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps, Democrats have the general election matchup they wanted. Janet Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz), a liberal circuit court judge in Milwaukee County, will face off against Daniel Kelly, a conservative former State Supreme Court justice who lost a 2020 election for his seat by nearly 11 percentage points — a colossal spread in such an evenly divided state

Abortion rights demonstrators gathered in Madison, Wis., in January 2022. Judge Protasiewicz has sought to put abortion, which is now illegal in most cases in Wisconsin, at the center of the campaign. Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Tuesday’s results suggested that the state’s Democratic voters are more energized than Republicans. While the number of ballots cast statewide represented 29 percent of the 2020 presidential electorate, the turnout in Dane County was 40 percent of the 2020 total, a striking figure for a judicial election. In Dane County, which includes the liberal state capital of Madison, Joseph R. Biden Jr. took three out of every four votes.

Republicans will also face the financial might of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which on Wednesday transferred $2.5 million to the Protasiewicz campaign. Justice Kelly did not spend a dollar on television advertising during the primary, but he was aided by $2.8 million in spending from a super PAC funded by the conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm. Democrats also helped Justice Kelly by spending $2.2 million to attack his conservative opponent, Jennifer Dorow, a circuit court judge in Waukesha County. 

Justice Kelly has said he expects Mr. Uihlein’s PAC, Fair Courts America, to spend another $20 million on his behalf for the general election. That money will not go as far as the cash transferred directly to the Protasiewicz campaign because candidates can buy television advertising at far lower rates than PACs. 

Wisconsin’s conservatives, who have controlled the court since 2008, fear a rollback not just of their favorable maps but also of a host of Republican-friendly policies that were ushered in while Scott Walker was governor, including changes to the state’s labor and voting laws. 

“She’s going to impart her values upon Wisconsin regardless of what the law is — does that seem like democracy to you?” said Eric Toney, the district attorney for Fond du Lac County, who was the Republican nominee for attorney general last year. “This isn’t Republicans and Democrats. It’s democracy and the rule of law that is on the line.”

There is also the question of how Wisconsin Republicans coalesce after their second bruising primary contest in six months. Throughout the campaign, Justice Kelly declined to say that he would back Judge Dorow in the general election, while her supporters flatly said that he would lose the general election.

It was a bit of a replay of the governor’s race last year, when bitter intraparty feelings remained after Tim Michels, with former President Donald J. Trump’s endorsement, defeated former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the primary. Ms. Kleefisch then did little to encourage her supporters to back Mr. Michels, who later lost the general election to Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

With Michels and Kleefisch, there wasn’t that come-together-to-Jesus moment,” said Stephen L. Nass, a Republican state senator from Whitewater. “I think people realize now that was a mistake. It should have happened. And now we’ve got to do it.”

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court was one vote away from overturning Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, deciding in a series of 4-to-3 decisions to reject Mr. Trump’s efforts to invalidate 200,000 votes from the state’s two largest Democratic counties.

Judge Protasiewicz speaking at her primary night party on Tuesday in Milwaukee. She has openly declared her views in support of abortion rights and against Wisconsin’s gerrymandered legislative maps.Caleb Alvarado for The New York Times

“What our Supreme Court did with the 2020 presidential election kind of turned people’s stomachs,” Judge Protasiewicz said in an interview on Tuesday over coffee and paczki, a Polish pastry served on Fat Tuesday. “We were one vote away from overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election.”

Judge Protasiewicz has pioneered what may be a new style of judicial campaigning. She has openly proclaimed her views on abortion rights (she’s for them) and the state’s legislative maps (she’s against them). That has appeared to offend Justice Kelly, who devoted chunks of his Tuesday victory speech to condemning the idea that Judge Protasiewicz had predetermined opinions about subjects likely to come before the court.

“If we do not resist this assault on our Constitution and our liberties, we will lose the rule of law and find ourselves saddled with the rule of Janet,” Justice Kelly told supporters in Waukesha County. 

But Judge Protasiewicz has considerable incentives to put her views on hot-button topics front and center for voters. (She calls them “my values” to remain within a law that prohibits judicial candidates from plainly stating how they would rule on specific cases.) Democrats learned in last year’s midterm contests just how potent and motivating abortion is for their voters. Judge Protasiewicz, in the interview, recounted how voters had come to her campaign stops wearing sweatshirts bearing the words “Fair maps now.” 

“The voters are demanding more,” said Rebecca Dallet, a liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, at the Protasiewicz victory party on Tuesday in Milwaukee. “People want to know more about their candidates. And I think there’s a way to communicate that without saying anything that shouldn’t be said about future cases.”

Justice Kelly’s views are hardly opaque, either.

Appointed to the court by Mr. Walker in 2016 before losing his re-election bid in 2020, Justice Kelly went on to work for the Republican National Committee as an “election integrity” consultant. He has the endorsement of the state’s three major anti-abortion groups.

Justice Kelly speaking at a party on Tuesday night in Okauchee Lake, Wis. He said in an interview that only state legislators, not the State Supreme Court, could overturn Wisconsin’s abortion ban.Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

During an interview on Monday night in Sheboygan, Justice Kelly said only legislators could overturn the state’s 1849 abortion ban, enacted decades before women were allowed to vote. He said that complaints about the maps amounted to a “political problem” and that they were legally sound.

Yet in the same interview, conducted in the back of a bar during a meeting of the Sheboygan County Republican Party, Justice Kelly declined to say whether he supported the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling in December 2020 that rejected Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the state’s presidential election results.

“If I were to say it was decided correctly, then the hullabaloo would be, ‘Justice Kelly doesn’t care about election integrity,’” he said. “If I say it was decided incorrectly, the hullabaloo would be, ‘Justice Kelly favors overthrowing in presidential elections.’ And so I don’t think there’s any way to answer that question in a way that would not get overcome by extraneous noise.

Still, he said he had “no reason to believe” Wisconsin’s 2020 election was not decided properly.

Since Justice Kelly lost in 2020, he and other Republicans have taken it as an article of faith that the wide margin of his defeat could be attributed to the Democratic presidential primary, which fell on the same day. Several Republicans asserted that Wisconsin’s Democratic Party leadership had colluded with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose presidential campaign was by then a lost cause, to remain in the race to lift the chances of the liberal candidate, Jill Karofsky.

“It still pains me to admit that, as it turns out, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders combined can turn out more votes than little old me,” Justice Kelly said Monday.

Faiz Shakir, who was the campaign manager for the Sanders campaign, said in an interview that Mr. Sanders had indeed decided to suspend his campaign and concede to Mr. Biden days before Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary, but encouraged his supporters to vote in the primary anyway to influence the court election.

One thing that is clear is that the next six weeks in Wisconsin politics will be dominated by the Protasiewicz campaign’s effort to place abortion rights at the center of the race. The issue will feature heavily in her television advertising, while Republicans will try to change the subject to crime — or anything else. 

“Everybody is very emotional about abortion, so that’s the tail that’s going to wag the dog,” said Aaron R. Guenther, a conservative Christian minister from Sheboygan. “It’s not what all of life is about, but it’s what the election is going to be about.”

Dan Simmons contributed reporting from Okauchee Lake, Wis.

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