Democratic-backed Janet Protasiewicz will win Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election, CNN projects, flipping majority control in liberals’ favor in what could be the most consequential election of the year with abortion access, election rules and more on the line in the key swing state.
Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County circuit court judge, will defeat conservative Daniel Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, in a race that shattered spending records on state judicial elections. Her win likely breaks an era of Republican dominance in a state that has been ensnared in political conflict for more than a decade.
The race was a critical gauge of whether and how the issue of abortion is motivating voters nearly a year after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The state’s high court is poised to settle a legal battle in the coming months over Wisconsin’s 1849 law that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court. But the retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack put that majority at stake.
Wisconsin is one of 14 states to directly elect its Supreme Court justices, and winners get 10-year terms. Judicial races there are nominally nonpartisan, but political parties leave little doubt as to which candidates they support. Spending in this year’s race – which reached $28.8 million as of March 29, according to the Brennan Center – far surpassed the previous record for spending on a state judicial contest: $15.4 million in a 2004 Illinois race.
Protasiewicz told supporters at her victory party Tuesday night that her win “has obviously reignited hope in so many of us.”
“Our state is taking a step forward to a better and brighter future, where our rights and freedoms will be protected,” she said.
Kelly acknowledged his defeat, telling supporters at his election night event that “this didn’t turn out the way we were looking for.”
But he also attacked Protasiewicz, saying, “I wish that in a circumstance like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent. But I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.”
Democrats saw the race as an opportunity to end Republican dominance in Wisconsin that began with Gov. Scott Walker’s election in 2010 – a victory that was followed by the passage of union-busting laws and state legislative districts drawn to effectively ensure GOP majorities, all green-lit by a state Supreme Court where conservatives have held the majority since 2008.
Walker lost his bid for a third term to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2018. But Evers has been hamstrung by the Republican-led legislature, with the conservative Supreme Court breaking ties on matters such as a 2022 ruling during the once-a-decade redistricting process in favor of using Republican-drawn legislative maps rather than ones submitted by Evers. The decision cemented Republicans’ solid majority in the state legislature.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is also positioned to play a critical role in determining how the 2024 election is conducted and settling disputes that arise.
The court played a pivotal role in the outcome of the 2020 election in Wisconsin: Justices voted 4-3, with conservative Brian Hagedorn joining the court’s three liberals, to reject former President Donald Trump’s efforts to throw out ballots in Democratic-leaning counties. And last year, the court barred the use of most ballot drop boxes and ruled that no one can return a ballot in person on behalf of another voter.
But the most immediate battle likely to reach the justices as early as this fall is over Wisconsin’s 1849 law that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances.
Groups on both sides of the abortion divide poured vast sums into the race and attempted to mobilize voters ahead of Tuesday’s election.
Though the two candidates refused to say how they’d rule on the issue, they left little doubt about their leanings.
In a debate last month, Protasiewicz said she was “making no promises” on how she would rule. But she also noted her personal support for abortion rights, as well as endorsements from pro-abortion rights groups. And she pointed to Kelly’s endorsement by Wisconsin Right to Life, which opposes abortion rights.
“If my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100% certainty, that 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books. I can tell you that,” Protasiewicz said.
Kelly, who has done legal work for Wisconsin Right to Life, shot back, saying Protasiewicz’s comments were “absolutely not true.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban,” he said. “You have no idea. These things you do not know.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.