The high-profile race for a swing seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court is attracting millions of dollars from outside groups and candidate campaigns alike in what is expected to be the most expensive campaign for a single judicial state race.
The approaching election has been dubbed the most high-stakes race of 2023 and could determine the future of abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative maps and voting rights issues in a pivotal state heading into the 2024 presidential elections. The two candidates who advanced from the Feb. 21 primaries are Milwaukee County circuit judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, receiving 46% and 24% of the vote respectively.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and with a conservative justice retiring, the upcoming April 4 election could flip that to a liberal majority. While the Wisconsin judicial elections are nonpartisan on the ballot, Protasiewicz has identified as liberal, and Kelly conservative.
Protasiewicz’s campaign has raised almost $2.2 million and Kelly $441,000, according to OpenSecrets data, which includes the most recent disclosures. These amounts were filed prior to the primary elections, and the next pre-election financial disclosures are required to be filed by March 27. In the meantime, outside money has flooded the election.
As of March 8, outside groups and candidate campaigns booked over $20 million in television and radio ads scheduled through election day, according to Brennan Center’s Buying Time 2023 database, which tracks special interest money and broadcast spending. This amount is subject to change, as it includes spending that was used to book ads that haven’t necessarily run yet. Those ads might be pulled or more ads might be booked in the coming weeks, altering this sum.
“If these ad orders hold true, then this is the most expensive election for a single seat in state judicial elections in terms of raw dollars,” Douglas Keith, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program told OpenSecrets. The most expensive race for a single seat to date was a $15.2 million race in Illinois in 2004, according to Brennan Center data, though that isn’t adjusted for inflation.
A big chunk of these political ads — nearly $8 million — were booked by Protasiewicz’s campaign. The progressive candidate has launched a number of broadcast ads focusing on her abortion rights stance.
“There’s a lot of interest in this race because so much is at stake — this is the future of the court,” Protasiewicz’s campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said.
This is a surge from the $1.1 million in ads Protasiewicz’s campaign scheduled to run leading up to the primaries on Feb. 21, according to Brennan Center data from Feb. 16, and is higher than the amount she reported raising. According to Keith, this might mean that Protasiewicz either raised a lot of money after winning the primary, that she’s anticipating raising that money with her recent win or that she might reduce her order of campaign ads going forward but wanted to book ahead of time.
Abortion has been on the forefront of Wisconsin’s judicial elections since an 1849 state law banning the procedure went into effect following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer overturning the federal right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. Wisconsin state law makes abortion a felony, unless it’s done to save the mother’s life. A Democratic-backed lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban is expected to make its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after the new justice takes the bench in August.
One of Protasiewicz’s ads claims Kelly will vote to uphold Wisconsin’s 1849 law banning abortions if elected. Her campaign is endorsed by the abortion rights political action committee EMILY’s list, while Kelly is endorsed by the state’s three top anti-abortion groups.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the nation’s most influential groups in the anti-abortion movement, said during the primary campaign that Women Speak Out PAC, its affiliated super PAC, committed “six figures” to help elect Kelly. He has done legal work for Wisconsin Right to Life in the past.
Kelly, who was endorsed during his unsuccessful 2020 Wisconsin Supreme Court bid by then-President Donald Trump, has yet to reserve an advertisement on his own. But Kelly’s campaign is backed mostly by a national ideological group called Fair Courts America. The super PAC, linked to Republican megadonors and supply shipping magnate couple Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein, has committed almost $4 million to boost Kelly’s bid, according to Buying Time data.
Shortly after political ads for the judicial race started running in January, Richard Uihlein donated $1.5 million to the group. The Uihleins, whose family heritage lies in Milwaukee, also gave $20,000 each to Kelly’s campaign, the maximum individual contribution amount.
Not all members of the Uihlein family direct their wealth to conservative causes though. Richard’s cousin Lynde Bradley Uihlein has given $250,000 to A Better Wisconsin Together, a progressive political fund that Buying Time data shows has committed almost $2.8 million to ads supporting Protasiewicz. Lynde Bradley Uihlein has also given $20,000 to Protasiewicz’s campaign.
WMC Issues Mobilization Council – the advocacy arm of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group – has also booked over $3 million in television ad space to support Kelly’s campaign over the next month.
Kelly’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
What’s at stake in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election
One of the reasons this is such a high-stakes, high-spending election is because courts have a large impact in policy making in Wisconsin, according to Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founding director of the university’s Elections Research Center.
Since the state’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled legislature do not see eye to eye on lawmaking, the two sides battle out their differences through litigation instead of negotiating, resulting in a lot of issues ending up in court, Burden told OpenSecrets in a phone interview. Due to the state Supreme Court’s extensive influence on Wisconsin policy, some big-time donors see the winning justice, who will serve a 10-year term, as a vehicle for influencing the Midwestern state’s legislation.
Also on the table is the issue of GOP-controlled state redistricting maps, which Protasiewicz has called “rigged” and Kelly defended in a forum in January. If Democrats flip the court on April 4, they are expected to challenge the current maps.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court also ruled last year that most drop boxes for absentee ballots are illegal. Following the decision, the state turned into a battleground in Trump’s bid to overturn Biden’s presidential win, though the ruling was ultimately decided to not be retroactive.
Trump and his supporters argued that the ruling meant over 200,000 ballots cast in drop boxes in Wisconsin in 2020 were invalid, echoing disproven claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election over a year and a half after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The battleground state’s upcoming judicial election has attracted nationwide attention as it is not just an extremely important race for Wisconsin, but has the potential to impact the 2024 presidential election.