In a historic election, the liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz is projected to win her race for a seat on Wisconsin’s supreme court. Her win will flip the ideological balance of the state’s highest court, which has been controlled by a conservative majority for 15 years.
Elections and democracy observers have called this election the most consequential one of the year, with abortion rights, redistricting and election rules at stake. The race pitted Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee circuit court judge and former prosecutor, against Dan Kelly, a former Wisconsin supreme court justice with ties to election deniers and the far right.
Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County circuit court judge, will defeat conservative Daniel Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, in a race that shattered spending records on state judicial elections. Her win likely breaks an era of Republican dominance in a state that has been ensnared in political conflict for more than a decade.
The race was a critical gauge of whether and how the issue of abortion is motivating voters nearly a year after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The state’s high court is poised to settle a legal battle in the coming months over Wisconsin’s 1849 law that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court. But the retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack put that majority at stake.
Wisconsin is one of 14 states to directly elect its Supreme Court justices, and winners get 10-year terms. Judicial races there are nominally nonpartisan, but political parties leave little doubt as to which candidates they support. Spending in this year’s race – which reached $28.8 million as of March 29, according to the Brennan Center – has far surpassed the previous record for spending on a state judicial contest: $15.4 million in a 2004 Illinois race.
“Today’s results mean two important things and special things,” Protasiewicz said Tuesday night. “First, it means Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard. They’ve chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state. And second, it means our democracy will always prevail.”
Persistent legislative gridlock and dysfunction in the state, fueled by the Republicans’ partisan manipulation of the state’s political maps, has pushed many critical issues to the courts, including abortion, observers say. The high court is likely to hear a challenge to the state’s 1849 abortion ban that went back into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
“My personal opinion is that it should be the woman’s right to make a reproductive health decision, period,” Protasiewicz said in her sole debate against Kelly, in late March. She added that she could say with “100 percent certainty that the 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books” if Kelly were elected.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul brought a lawsuit last year challenging the law’s constitutionality. The suit argues that abortion regulations the state legislature passed in the 1980s override the 1849 ban and that the ban not being enforced since the 1973 Roe decision should render it invalid.
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.
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.
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