Wisconsin voters will head to the polls on April 4th, 2023, to elect a new justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to replace the retiring conservative Patience Roggensack. While Supreme Court election are nominally nonpartisan, the court currently has a 4-3 conservative majority. This election has received national attention, as it will determine the balance of power on the court and could have significant implications for state government.
Janet Protasiewicz, the Democratic-backed candidate, is a Milwaukee County circuit court judge and former assistant district attorney. She is running as a progressive candidate, and her platform focuses on her support for progressive principles like abortion rights and LGBT rights. She’s also made clear her opposition to the state’s congressional and legislative maps. If elected, Protasiewicz is expected to shift the court substantially to the left, providing an additional check on the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. However, in many ways her campaign has become a proxy for abortion rights in Wisconsin – and if other states are any indication, voters have been opposed to harsh abortion restrictions.
Dan Kelly, the Republican-backed candidate, is a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. He was appointed to the bench by former Governor Scott Walker in 2016, but lost his bid for re-election in 2020. Kelly has a conservative judicial philosophy and was a reliable conservative vote on issues such as gun rights, abortion, and voting rights. He has been sharply critical of Brian Hagedorn, the court’s Republican swing vote, and has ties to the Stop the Steal movement. Kelly has been endorsed by numerous conservative groups, including the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Right to Life.
What’s at Stake
The outcome of this election could have significant implications for state government, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court has played a significant role in shaping state policy on issues such as redistricting, voting rights, and abortion. With a conservative majority currently in place, a Kelly win would likely maintain the status quo. However, a win for Protasiewicz would shift the balance of power on the court and potentially lead to a more progressive interpretation of state law. In particular, the state’s 1849 abortion ban would almost certainly be overturned, and the congressional and legislative maps could well be struck down as well.
Moreover, this election is taking place amid a backdrop of increased political polarization in the state. Wisconsin has emerged as perhaps the nation’s most prominent swing state; it’s been the center of numerous high-profile political battles in recent years, including the 2020 presidential election, where it narrowly backed Joe Biden, and the 2022 midterms, where it re-elected both Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Republican Senator Ron Johnson. The outcome of this election will be closely watched by both Republicans and Democrats as a bellwether for the state’s immediate political future.
Given the result of the nonpartisan primary – which gave Democrats an advantage – as well as spending in this race, we are rating it as Leans Protasiewicz. State Democrats are confident about their chances, but there’s still a path to a Kelly win; however, a Kelly win would be an upset at this point. With both candidates offering vastly different judicial philosophies, the outcome of this election could have significant implications for state policy and the balance of power on the court. Wisconsin voters will have an important decision to make on Election Day that could shape the direction of the state for years to come.