Liberals are poised to flip the Wisconsin State Supreme Court from years of conservative control. The 2023 retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack leaves a 3-3 ideological split between the six remaining justices, meaning the election tonight to replace Roggensack will be decisive. Liberal Janet Protasiewicz faces conservative Dan Kelly in tonight’s general election. Although Wisconsin Supreme Court Elections are officially nonpartisan, Protasiewicz will be primarily supported by Democratic voters while Kelly effectively serves as the Republican nominee.
Protasiewicz dominated the February 21st top-two primary election, receiving ~46% of the vote. Kelly edged out a more moderate conservative candidate, Jennifer Dorow, by a 24-22% margin. Another liberal candidate, Everett Mitchell, received 8% of the vote, meaning the two liberals combined for 54% of the total vote. The liberal nominees dominated the primary election through a massive turnout advantage fueled primarily by white, educated voters. Democrats should be optimistic this will continue in the general election, while Republicans will hope the advantage is mitigated given tonight is a higher-salience election night.
Tonight’s election is the most expensive State Supreme Court election in national history. Total spending hit $31 million by March 26th, blowing by the previous national record of $15 million. While spending by the Protasiewicz campaign has dwarfed spending by the Kelly campaign, various outside conservative groups have invested millions of dollars into the race, diminishing the liberal spending advantage. State Supreme Court elections usually do not receive this much media coverage and financial investment. Why is this one so important?
After the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with their decision in Jackson v. Dobbs last summer, abortion immediately became illegal in Wisconsin. This ban dates back to 1849 when the Wisconsin State Legislature criminalized abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has sued to block the ban, and the State Supreme Court is expected to weigh in sometime after this election. Governor Tony Evers won re-election in 2022, and Republicans failed to secure a super-majority in the state legislature, leaving abortion legality entirely up to the State Supreme Court in the near future. With judges expected to vote entirely on ideological lines, the winner of today’s election should decide whether to block the ban when the time comes.
Redistricting and Legislative Maps
According to many quantitative measures, Wisconsin’s current national and state legislative maps are heavily biased toward Republicans. Republicans hold a 6-2 advantage in Wisconsin’s US House delegation and won 66% of seats in the WI State House despite only winning 54% of the vote in 2022. Democrats will point to these holistic analyses to argue that fairer maps would be significantly more left-leaning, but Republicans will respond that Democrats suffer from suboptimal political geography in Wisconsin (a claim backed by nonpartisan analysis). It does not matter which maps are fair to understand the ramifications of this election—if Protasiewicz defeats Kelly, the new court could draw a 4-4 federal map and more competitive state legislative maps.
While Kelly has an uphill battle, it would be unwise to count the conservative nominee out in a state that voted to the nation’s right in the past two presidential elections. Democrats hope that turnout in Dane County will be extremely over-indexed, as in the primary election. Republicans will depend on high education turnout base of their own in the suburban “WOW” counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) and hope that social culture war issues mobilize the party’s rural, conservative base. You can follow live results tonight here at decisiondeskhq.com. Polls close in Wisconsin at 9pm Eastern time.