Making sense of the expensive and divided race for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court

Voters and experts alike have called out the race as politically divided.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 6:43 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 7:36 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Some experts have likened this year’s race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to a congressional or gubernatorial one. Here are characteristics of this judicial race, which in some ways makes it unlike others in the state’s past.

The race is divided

Voters and experts alike have called out the race as politically divided.

“Right now it’s incredibly partisan, pretty disappointing,” Chloe Madison said. “Law is not partisan or should not be partisan, anyway. So the fact that there is so much contention around it makes it feels like Democrat v. Republican and not just ‘what is the law and who is the best person to interpret it?’”

“It’s a partisan race,” Former Wis. Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske said. “Democrats and people that believe in Democratic-related issues are following one candidate, and very conservative, pro-life people are following the other candidate, and there doesn’t seem to be much crossover.”

After getting appointed to the high court by Governor Tommy Thompson in 1993, Geske won election in 1994. She spoke from personal experience, “The goal in campaigning was really to get people from both sides of the aisle, in the greatest sense of the word.”

Former Wis. Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske
Former Wis. Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske(Courtesy of Janine Geske)

“I guess the real challenge for whoever gets elected is how... you come back to the middle when you get to the court, which is where you have to be. You have to be not only open to the record and the legal arguments but [to] your colleagues,” Geske said. She has not endorsed a specific candidate.

The race is expensive

All of the spending is estimated at more than $30 million, and it’s still climbing. Both Geske and NBC15 political analyst Richard Haven expect the final amount to be near $40 million.

The figure has already shattered the record in U.S. history. The previous high was $15.4 million set by the Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004.

Protasiewicz has raised $14.5 million, with more than half of it coming from the state Democratic Party. Kelly has raised nearly $3 million, with state and local Republican groups chipping in as well.

Dan Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz
Dan Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz(WSAW)

In comparison, Geske recalled raising about $200,000 during her run for a seat on the bench.

“It’s just bizarre in many ways that so much is coming in, but that’s that indication of the national impact. They think that who wins this may in fact say something about what’s coming in ‘24,” Haven said.

The race has nationwide attention

He was referring to the 2024 presidential election. He also said there’s talk about Wisconsin being a swing state because state justices could affect voting rights or redistricting.

“Only the Wisconsin citizens get to vote, but the interest across the nation is significant, and that’s adding to this sense of drama to this election,” Haven, who is also a professor emeritus at UW-Whitewater, said.

Especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Haven believes focus has turned to the courts, both at the national level and the state.

“A lot of people are putting a great deal of importance on the outcome of this state Supreme Court race in little Wisconsin compared to California and New York and Texas and Florida and so on,” he said. “So yes, this is amazing.”

The race is “ideologically based”

Traditionally, judicial campaigns promoted the duties of a justice, Haven said. But for the last decade, campaigns around the country have turned their focus onto ideas.

Haven cited an example in 2008 when Former State Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman was elected. He had run ads attacking his opponent’s work as a defense attorney. “That was an ideological attack and questioning the credibility or the capability of a sitting justice,” Haven said.

“Since that time, we’ve seen these races become more and more ideologically based, and really much more like a race for governor or a race for a congressional seats with significant impact, at times expected because of who gets elected to the Supreme Court on some issues that affect the Legislature, the governor and the laws of the state.”

The shift towards ideology is a product of the times. Haven argues, this is due to the rise of social media and cable television, a growing split between conservative and liberal thinking and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, which tapped into the frustrations of the working class.

The race is expected to have higher turnout than normal

While the turnout may not reach levels of a presidential or gubernatorial race, Haven believes numbers will be much higher than what’s normally seen for a state Supreme Court race.

Haven is particularly watching out for college campuses in Wisconsin, expecting more young voters to show up than they usually do for elections of this kind. “If that group turns out, they tend to vote progressive.”

He added that voters who come out for Madison’s mayoral race, also on April 4, could help Protasiewicz see a boost in numbers because both mayoral candidates are “essential two progressive challengers.”

On the other hand, Haven suspects there could be higher turnout among people in the working class, who helped Donald Trump become President in 2016. This could help with Kelly’s success, he said.

The spring election is on Tuesday, April 4.

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