Attack lines broaden beyond abortion in Wisconsin court race

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The lines of attack in Wisconsin's high stakes race for Wisconsin Supreme Court are broadening beyond abortion with three weeks to go in the contest that is already the most expensive election of its kind.

Democratic-endorsed candidate Janet Protasiewicz, who initially focused largely on abortion, is now going after her Republican-backed challenger Dan Kelly over work he did for the GOP, critical statements he made on Social Security and other issues. Kelly's backers are largely trying to paint Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, as weak on crime and unethical for speaking so forcefully in support of abortion rights.

The winner in the April 4 election 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 is a former conservative justice backed by Republicans who was endorsed by Donald Trump in 2020. Protasiewicz is a Democratic-backed Milwaukee County circuit judge.

Kelly was scheduled to take 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.

Since the Feb. 20 primary, about $13.2 million has been spent on television ads, 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.

Protasiewicz has placed $8 million in orders for ads through the April 4 election. She 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.

But over the past two weeks, Protasiewicz has broadened her attacks on Kelly. She went after his work advising Republicans on their fake elector scheme following the 2020 election. And 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 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.

National groups on both sides of the abortion fight also pledged to spend significantly on the race, on TV and online advertising, direct mail efforts, door-to-door campaigning, phone calls, text messages and other methods of influencing voters.

Kelly has yet to run any television ads himself. But he is benefitting from spending by conservative groups that are trying to paint Protasiewicz as weak on crime while a Milwaukee County judge.

A group funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein called Fair Courts America 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.

Scott Bauer, The Associated Press