Now that we’re in an off-year election season, our spotlight turns to those often neglected, but no less important, state contests.
In 2023, the most pivotal contest will likely be the spring race for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Republicans hold a slim one-seat margin, and a victory here would give the Democrats a majority in a top tossup state.
After all, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes (0.77%) back in 2016, only for Joe Biden to take The Badger State by 20,682 votes (0.63%) four years later. Accordingly, it is expected to be closely decided again in 2024 and the Wisconsin Supreme Court could very well play a factor in that race.
Back in 2020, Donald Trump’s bid to throw out hundreds of thousands of ballots was rejected by the Court on just a razor-thin 4-3 margin. There’s the potential of a repeat challenge following the 2024 presidential election as well as ones aimed at the redistricting map drawn by the GOP legislature and used in last November’s midterms.
The most immediate issue, though, will undoubtedly be abortion rights. Last year in their Dobbs decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion was not a Constitutional right, effectively punting the issue to the states.
In Wisconsin, that means reverting back to an 1849 abortion ban. Meanwhile, Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, fresh off winning their second terms last November, are already challenging that law in court. Their success may well depend on flipping this seat.
The state is holding its primary on February 21st, and while the contest is technically nonpartisan, the field consists of two Democratic-aligned candidates and two Republican-aligned candidates. The top-two finishers in the primary will then advance to a general election on April 4th.
To prepare for this race, I’ve compiled a run-down of those four contenders, presented below in alphabetical order.
Judge Dorow currently serves on the Waukesha County Circuit Court, where she was first appointed by then Governor Scott Walker in 2011. She went on to win a complete term in 2012 and re-election to another in 2018.
Dorow is publicly campaigning as a conservative candidate and touting the endorsements of the Milwaukee Police Association as well as 42 current or former Sheriffs. She’s also won the support of the woman, Justice Patience Roggensack, that she’s seeking to replace.
The Judge first got some mainstream attention while presiding over the trial of the Waukesha Parade Attacker, after an argument with the suspect went viral. Dorow is now reminding voters of that moment in her first TV ad.
The other conservative in the race actually once sat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Justice Kelly was appointed by Gov. Walker back in 2016, but lost his 2020 election by ten and a half points.
While Roggensack is backing Dorow, Kelly does have the endorsement of one former colleague, Justice Rebecca Bradley. He’s also has the support of Wisconsin’s Uihlein family, an influential clan of Republican billionaires.
Justice Kelly is trying to run to Dorow’s right, arguing that she can’t be trusted with a spot on the state’s high court. For instance, Kelly recently invoked the example of Justice Brian Hagedorn before a group of Dane County Republicans. Hagedorn, who was elected as a conservative back in 2019, sided with the Court’s three liberals to reject Donald Trump’s 2020 election challenge. The implication being that Dorow could also betray the trust of conservative voters.
A Reverend and Dane County Circuit Court Judge, Everett Mitchell is one of the two progressive candidates in this contest. His highest profile endorsers are former Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler and former Governor Jim Doyle.
Nevertheless, it appears Mitchell’s campaign is suffering from poor timing. Just three months ago, Wisconsin’s Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes narrowly lost to Republican Senator Ron Johnson, after Johnson painted Barnes as soft-on-crime. So now some state Democrats are worried that nominating another young black man like Mitchell will leave them vulnerable to the same attacks.
The final candidate, Janet Claire Protasiewicz, currently serves as a judge for the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. As opposed to Mitchell, she’s earned the backing of several local labor unions including AFSCME, AFT, UAW, LIUNA and IBEW.
Perhaps as a result, Protasiewicz managed to raise far more money than her competitors, with fellow Democratic candidate Mitchell way behind all the others.
Meanwhile, Protasiewicz is making abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign. For instance, in her first TV ad – a simple fifteen second spot – Judge Protasiewicz takes the time to point out that she “believes in a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion.” She also earned Democratic plaudits, and Republican outrage, when she called the recent redistricting map “rigged.”
Her proudly progressive campaign won her the late endorsement of EMILY’s List, the first time the powerful women’s organization has ever endorsed a state judicial candidate.
Make sure to visit Decision Desk HQ on Election Night for the fastest results, and then check out my day-after recap!