Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates debate as voting begins

Poll worker Pranee Sheskey puts up a sign outside the Warner Park Community Recreation Center for the first day of early voting Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin voters began casting ballots in person in the state's high-stakes Supreme Court race, hours before the two candidates were slated to meet for their only debate two weeks before Election Day. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin voters began casting ballots in person on Tuesday in the state’s high-stakes Supreme Court race, hours before the two candidates were slated to meet for their only debate two weeks before election day. 

Both candidates were urging their supporters to vote early during the period that runs through April 2. The contest between Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz will decide majority control of the court, with abortion access, legislative redistricting, voting rights and other issues at stake. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning Donald Trump’s defeat in the state in 2020. Whoever wins the April 4 election for a seat vacated by the retirement of a conservative justice will determine majority control of the court for at least the next two years, including leading up to the 2024 presidential election. 

Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, is running as a staunch supporter of abortion rights. Wisconsin’s ban on nearly all abortions, which was enacted in 1849 — a year after statehood — is already being challenged in court and will likely land before the state Supreme Court later this year or next. 

Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, has long ties to the Republican Party, having previously worked for Republicans, including advising illegitimate electors who met in 2020 to try and cast the state’s electoral votes for Donald Trump even though he lost. 

Protasiewicz’s endorsements include Hillary Clinton and EMILY’s List, which works nationwide to elect Democratic abortion rights supporters. 

Elizabeth Doe, 73, was the first person to cast a ballot in Wisconsin’s liberal capital, Madison, doing so shortly after 9 a.m. at a community center. She said she voted for Protasiewicz because of her concerns over “reproductive rights.” 

“You can’t take that right away,” she said. 

Protasiewicz and her allies have largely attacked Kelly over abortion, noting his support by the state’s three largest anti-abortion groups and his past work for Wisconsin Right to Life. Kelly has not said how he would rule on the abortion law challenge should it reach the court, but he did write in a blog post years ago that everyone knows the procedure “takes the life of an unborn child.” 

Kelly has accused Protasiewicz of going too far and essentially committing to voting to overturn the 1849 abortion ban should the challenge to it come before the high court. Protasiewicz has not said how she would rule on that or any other specific case. 

Kelly and his allies have largely focused on Protasiewicz’s record as a judge, arguing that she’s handed down light sentences to violent offenders. 

Judy Drousth, a 70-year-old voter from Madison, said she was concerned about over-politicizing officially nonpartisan court races. She said both Kelly and Protasiewicz were guilty of doing that, but she voted Tuesday for Protasiewicz and thinks she can be fair on the court. 

The contest has already broken national spending records for a Supreme Court race, with the two sides having spent at least $22 million to date. WisPolitics.com estimated that more than $30 million had been spent on the race as of last week, which would be roughly double the $15.2 million spent on a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race that had held the mark as the most expensive. 

Protasiewicz released two new ads hours before the midday debate, including one featuring a woman from Green Bay who had an abortion and claims that Kelly would “uphold the criminal ban on abortion.” 

Her campaign said it has spent $10.3 million on TV ads, while AdImpact said last week that Kelly had spent less than $100,000. At least $8 million had been spent on ads, or in ad buy reservations, by conservative groups backing Kelly as of March 14, according to a tally by the liberal Brennan Center for Justice.