Liberal Candidate Wins Wisconsin Supreme Court Race, A Significant Victory For Abortion Rights

Janet Protasiewicz's triumph could reshape Wisconsin's politics, with nation-wide implications.
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Liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz will be the newest Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, putting the court’s liberal bloc in the majority for the first time in nearly 15 years. 

Her resounding victory likely dooms the state’s 1849 abortion ban, preserving access to the procedure in Wisconsin for the foreseeable future. 

It also gives Democrats and good government groups the chance to unwind Republicans’ manufactured dominance over the state’s government by challenging its egregiously gerrymandered maps. The state’s legislative district maps reflect the most aggressive partisan gerrymanders okayed by a court anywhere in the country, per a 2022 University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School report

Finally, it puts liberals in charge of any challenges pertaining to the 2024 election, which are almost a certainty if former President Donald Trump becomes Republicans’ general election nominee and loses again. The court dismissed his 2020 lawsuit by the skin of its teeth, with conservative Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn crossing over to join the liberals. That vote earned Hagedorn derision from Tuesday’s unsuccessful Republican candidate, former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who went on the record to call Hagedorn “supremely unreliable.” 

Protasiewicz’s margins in the purple state were significant: When the Associated Press called the race, she led with 57 percent of the vote. An estimated 63 percent had been counted.

The Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first is the sheer amount of money that poured into the state, shattering records. Local outlets have found that the totals surpass $45 million. Kelly was supported by spending from Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, major right-wing mega-donors who also funded various attempts to overturn the 2020 election. 

Second, Protasiewicz won by abandoning any pretense of impartiality. She staked her campaign primarily on protecting abortion rights, also calling the Republican maps “rigged.” Kelly and Republican lawmakers have protested her candor — “That’s not what you’re supposed to do because you’ve already decided how you’re gonna vote,” Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told TPM — but it helped drive interest in and enthusiasm for the oddly-timed, off-cycle race. Kelly took a more traditional tack: claiming to be apolitical while dragging behind him a track record of advising Republicans on the fake electors scheme, a key part of Trump’s plan to overturn the election, and of anti-abortion and anti-LBGTQ positions.  

The heightened interest in the race also highlights a new balance of power. In states like Wisconsin, where Republicans have secured undemocratic control through aggressive gerrymandering and used that power to neuter the governor’s authority, the courts are the only backstops to these state lawmakers often governing to the right of the constituents they represent. That dynamic has only become starker since Dobbs.   

John Light contributed to this report.

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