By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A liberal Milwaukee judge advanced in Tuesday’s pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court primary, securing one of two spots for the April general election that will determine majority control.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz advanced in the four-person race. It was too early to know who also secured enough votes to face her in the April 4 election. Two conservatives were in a narrow contest for the chance to take on Protasiewicz, while another liberal candidate was a distant fourth.
Conservatives have controlled the state Supreme Court for 15 years, issuing rulings handing Republicans victories on voting restrictions, gerrymandered legislative districts and other high-stakes cases.
But an open seat this year gives liberals a chance to take over the majority with issues like abortion access, gerrymandered legislative districts and voting rights heading into the 2024 presidential election at stake.
The court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s win in the state in 2020, and both major parties are preparing for another close margin in 2024.
Protasiewicz raised more money than her three challengers combined and collected hundreds of endorsements, including from two current liberal justices on the court. She has campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights and said legislative maps drawn by Republicans and approved by the current Supreme Court were “rigged.”
Protasiewicz said after her win that voters knew how high the stakes were.
“We’re saving our democracy in the state of Wisconsin,” she said. “That’s what I’m explaining to people. I’m talking about the ability to vote, to have a vote that counts about women’s rights, reproductive freedoms, the fact that the 2024 presidential election results could likely come into our Supreme Court chamber, just everything people care about.”
The conservatives battling for a chance to take on Protasiewicz are former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow. Liberal Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell was a distant fourth.
The next court is likely to issue key rulings on Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban law, legislative maps, union rights and challenges to election results.
Republicans also fear that laws they enacted over the past decade could be in jeopardy under a liberal court, such as a 2011 law signed that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees, a voter ID law, a ban on absentee ballot drop boxes, and a host of others.
Protasiewicz called the GOP-drawn legislative maps rigged and made her support for abortion rights a focus of her campaign.
Mitchell, who would have been the first Black justice elected to the court, also called the maps unfair and expressed support for abortion rights.
Both conservative candidates are supported by anti-abortion groups in the state.
Dorow has been active in local Republican Party politics. Kelly was endorsed by Trump during his unsuccessful run two years ago and did work for both the state and national Republican parties the past two years, including advising on the scheme in Wisconsin to have fake electors cast ballots for Trump. Both candidates have been speaking to GOP groups across the state during the primary campaign.
Dorow became nationally known after presiding over the trial of Darrell Brooks Jr., who was convicted of killing six people when he drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in 2021.
The campaign is expected to shatter national spending records. Outside groups had already spent about $9.2 million as of Tuesday, about evenly split between the two sides, according to AdImpact Politics, which tracks advertising.
“People know what this race means,” Protasiewicz said Tuesday night, “and they are contributing likewise.”