Attack lines broaden beyond abortion in Wisconsin court race

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-backed candidate in Wisconsin’s high-stakes race for state Supreme Court accused his liberal opponent Tuesday of slandering him in a barrage of television ads that initially focused on his views on abortion, but have widened to take on his past work for Republicans and other topics.

Dan Kelly, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, faces Democratic-backed Janet Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, on April 4. The winner will determine majority control of the court, with the fate of abortion access, legislative redistricting, voting rights, rules for elections and other major issues at stake.

The winner will also be in place heading into the 2024 presidential election in battleground Wisconsin. The court, currently controlled 4-3 by conservatives, came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s narrow win in 2020.

Kelly and his supporters have been outspent by Protasiewicz and her backers nearly 2-to-1 since the Feb. 21 primary.

About $13.2 million has been spent on television ads since the primary, according to AdImpact, which tracks TV spending nationwide. Of that, $8.3 million benefitted Protasiewicz compared with $4.9 million for Kelly, the group said.

“I won’t go through all the specifics, but the ads that she is paying to be run against me are nothing but a dirty pack of lies,” Kelly said. “They’re simply not true.”

Protasiewicz’s campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker responded by saying “Dan Kelly’s entire record is a sham” and accused him and his allies of “lying about Janet from day one.”

“Wisconsinites can follow the facts in all of our ads and see the truth for themselves,” Roecker said.

Kelly’s backers are largely trying to paint Protasiewicz as weak on crime and unethical for speaking so forcefully in support of abortion rights. Kelly said he did not think Protasiewicz could be impartial on the court.

Kelly downplayed his work for Republicans, saying he also had clients on the left, but he declined to name them. He also defended prior blog posts where he detailed his conservative views on abortion and other issues, saying his political positions are “completely irrelevant to the work of the court.”

Kelly is a former conservative justice who was endorsed by Donald Trump in 2020. Protasiewicz received the endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.

Kelly took questions Tuesday from a panel of reporters at an event hosted by the Milwaukee Press Association, and the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. Protasiewicz declined to participate. They meet on March 21 for their one and only debate before the election. That is the same day that early, in-person voting begins in Wisconsin.

As of March 8, more than $20 million had been spent or booked for television and radio ads, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending only on television and radio ads. The previous high spent on a state supreme court race was $15.2 million in Illinois in 2004.

The final tally in Wisconsin will likely go much higher, especially when all other spending on the race is accounted for.

Protasiewicz has placed $8 million in orders for ads through the April 4 election. The next highest spender is a group funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein called Fair Courts America. It has spent nearly $4 million on spots for Kelly. The political wing of the conservative state chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has also booked $3.4 million in ads in support of Kelly, according to the Brennan Center.

In her ads, Protasiewicz initially focused on portraying Kelly as an extremist on abortion given his support from the state’s three largest anti-abortion groups, all of which want the state’s 1849 law banning nearly all abortions to remain in place.

Kelly has not said how he would rule on the abortion law should it reach the court, but he did write in a previous blog post that everyone knows the procedure “takes the life of an unborn child.” On Tuesday, Kelly said campaign ads stating that he would vote to uphold the 1849 abortion ban are a lie because he has not said how he would rule.

Kelly has accused Protasiewicz of going too far and essentially of committing to voting to overturn the state’s 1849 law banning nearly all abortions, should the lawsuit seeking to overturn the law come before the court as expected. Protasiewicz has not said how she would rule on that or any other specific case.

Over the past two weeks, Protasiewicz has broadened her attacks on Kelly beyond abortion. In a new ad launched Tuesday, Protasiewicz focuses on blog posts Kelly made in 2013 saying that Social Security and Medicare are for those who “have chosen to retire without sufficient assets to support themselves.”

Kelly has not run any ads yet. But he said Tuesday they were coming soon.

Bauer is the AP’s Statehouse reporter covering politics and state government in Madison, Wisconsin. He also writes music reviews.