MADISON, Wis. - Judge Janet Protasiewicz won the Wisconsin Supreme Court race Tuesday, ensuring liberals will take over majority control of the court for the first time in 15 years with the fate of the state’s abortion ban pending.
Protasiewicz, 60, defeated former Justice Dan Kelly, who previously worked for Republicans and had support from the state’s leading anti-abortion groups. It’s his second loss in a race for Supreme Court in three years.
"I feel great. I could not feel better," Protasiewicz told The Associated Press after her win. "I am surprised of the results and the magnitude of the victory here. We are absolutely delighted and thrilled."
The new court controlled 4-3 by liberals is expected to decide a pending lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 law banning abortion. Protasiewicz made the issue a focus of her campaign and won the support of Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Janet Protasiewicz, Daniel Kelly
The court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s win in the state in 2020, and both major parties are preparing for another close race in 2024.
The court will now be controlled by Democratic-backed justices for at least the next two years, including the run-up and aftermath of the 2024 presidential election. Four of the past six presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than a percentage point and Trump turned to the courts in 2020 in his unsuccessful push to overturn his roughly 21,000-vote loss in the state.
Protasiewicz largely focused her campaign around abortion, saying she supports abortion rights but stopping short of saying how she would rule on a pending lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s 174-year-old ban that was enacted a year after statehood. She called Kelly an "extreme partisan" and claimed that if he wins, Kelly would uphold the ban. Kelly has not said how he would rule.
Kelly had expressed opposition to abortion in the past, including in a 2012 blog post in which he said the Democratic Party and the National Organization for Women were committed to normalizing the taking of human life. He also had done legal work for Wisconsin Right to Life.
Kelly is a former justice who has also performed work for Republicans and advised them on a plan to have fake GOP electors cast their ballots for Trump following the 2020 election even though Trump had lost. He was endorsed by the state’s top three anti-abortion groups, while Protasiewicz was backed by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates.
Ahead of the vote, Protasiewicz called Kelly "a true threat to our democracy" because of his advising on the fake elector scheme.
Kelly was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in 2016. He served four years before being defeated in 2020 on the same ballot as the Democratic presidential primary. Kelly was endorsed by Trump that year.
Trump did not endorse this year. Protasiewicz’s endorsements included Hillary Clinton.
Kelly tried to distance himself from his work for Republicans, saying it was "irrelevant" to how he would work as a justice. He tried to make the campaign about Protasiewicz’s record as a judge, arguing that she was soft on crime and accusing her of being "bought and paid for" by Democrats.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party gave Protasiewicz’s campaign more than $8 million, leading her to promise to recuse herself from any case brought by the party. Kelly refused to promise to step down from any case brought by his supporters, which include the state chamber of commerce.
In addition to abortion, Protasiewicz was outspoken on Wisconsin’s gerrymandered legislative maps, calling them "rigged." Kelly accused her of prejudging that case, abortion and others that could come before the court.
The court is also expected to hear a new challenge to Republican-drawn legislative maps. Protasiewicz ran as a critic of the current maps, calling them "rigged."
The state Supreme Court upheld Republican-drawn maps in 2022. Those maps, widely regarded as among the most gerrymandered in the country, have helped Republicans increase their hold on the state Legislature to near supermajority levels, even as Democrats have won statewide elections, including Tony Evers as governor in both 2018 and 2022 and Biden in 2020.
Protasiewicz will serve a 10-year term starting in August replacing retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack. She is part of the current 4-3 conservative majority.
Janet Protasiewicz Milwaukee watch party
Protasiewicz supporters gathered at Saint Kate in downtown Milwaukee Tuesday night.
Protasiewicz voted in Franklin Tuesday morning and said she was feeling much better after coming down with an upper respiratory infection. Surrogates were out knocking on doors on her behalf in the final stretch.
Having cross-crossed the state, meeting with voters ahead of the election, Protasiewicz said she was feeling confident.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz casts her ballot on April 4, 2023.
"We’re feeling really good, really positive, "said Protasiewicz. "We’ve been working really hard. The reception we’ve had around the state is absolutely unbelievable. Everywhere we go, we have packed rooms."
Protasiewicz arrived at Saint Kate Tuesday evening and mingled with supporters. The candidate previously said democracy was at stake with this election, and her campaign manager said that's what he believes drove people to the polls.
"So many things that people feel every day – that’s at stake," he said. "People understand that, and that’s why we’re seeing this motivation."
Daniel Kelly Green Lake watch party
Kelly's supporters gathered at Heidel House in Green Lake, a little more than 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee, with Kelly hoping for a better result. After then-Governor Scott Walker appointed Kelly to the court in 2016, he lost the 2020 election to Justice Jill Karofsky.
FOX6's cameras were there as Kelly and his wife, Elisa, voted Tuesday morning in the Town of Ottawa in Waukesha County.
Kelly campaigned on his experience, touting he'll rule only on the law and not his personal conservative beliefs.
He, too, was feeling confident heading into Tuesday night.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly casts his ballot on April 4, 2023.
"It's about whether we follow what the Constitution tells us we do in the court, which is just using the existing law to decide the cases that come before us, or instead, having a politician dress up like a judge and use her political agenda," said Kelly.
The campaign said they expected around 200 family members, friends and supporters in Green Lake.
Kelly arrived with his family shortly after the doors opened and mingled with supporters. They said they felt he was the right choice because he would root his decisions in law and not politics.
"I think he's got honesty," said Bill Madsen, Muskego. "He's got integrity, and I believe in him. I believe in his message, and I just think it's important that his message has resonated with us. I'm fully in support of him."