Steven Walters
The State of Politics

High Court Race Divides Republicans

And Democrats. But the obvious friction is between conservatives Dan Kelly and Jennifer Dorow.

By - Dec 26th, 2022 11:15 am
Waukesha County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jennifer Dorow. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch.

Waukesha County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jennifer Dorow. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch.

Although four names will be on the Feb. 21 primary ballot for the open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the contest between the two conservative candidates — former justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Court judge Jennifer Dorow — has caused the most friction.

Daniel Kelly. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-18.

Daniel Kelly. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-18.

It’s tempting to list the similarities between that choice and last August’s Republican primary for governor. Kelly, after all, had been running for months when Dorow announced her candidacy. Last year, the Republican who had worked for years to run for governor, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, was challenged by construction executive Tim Michels, who announced less than four months before winning the primary.

And, the two conservative candidates for the high court have traded sound-bite challenges — just like Kleefisch and Michels did.

“I’m struggling to think of any other reason that she would believe she would be a qualified candidate for the Supreme Court.” Kelly told an Associated Press reporter,  accusing Dorow of taking advantage of the national publicity she got for presiding over the trial of Darrell Brooks.

A jury convicted Brooks in October of killing six and injuring dozens when he drove his car through the 2021 Waukesha Christmas parade. Dorow announced her Supreme Court candidacy days after she sentenced Brooks to six consecutive life sentences plus 700 more years in prison.

Dorow, in a separate interview with the same reporter responded: “I’ll gladly compare my background and credentials to any of the candidates — including Dan, who was never a trial judge and never a prosecutor.”

Kelly was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016. He lost his bid for a full term to Justice Jill Karofsky in 2020.

But the comparisons stop there, for several reasons.

There will be two other names on the primary ballot, in addition to Kelly and Dorow. Also running are Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who would join the court’s liberal wing if elected. They have not publicly criticized each other.

Since it’s officially a non-partisan election, the two candidates who get the most votes in February will advance to the April general election. So, although it’s unlikely, the April ballot could be a Kelly-versus-Dorow election, or even a Mitchell-versus-Protasiewicz contest.

Kelly facing off against Dorow splits Wisconsin Republicans; Mitchell versus Protasiewicz gives Wisconsin Democrats heartburn.

Leaders of both parties agree on one thing: One of our candidates must win in February, so they can win in April.

Our “next election” is April 4, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin insists on its website. “The fight for a more fair and equitable Wisconsin never stops.”

In his first statement after being elected chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Brian Schimming made a similar promise: “I look forward to working side by side with the thousands of grassroots leaders in this state to win Wisconsin for the Republican presidential candidate and elect a conservative to the state Supreme Court.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher, since April’s winner will cast a tie-breaking vote, aligning either with the three conservative or three liberal members of the Court. The April winner will win a 10-year term on the court, replacing retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack, who also served for some years as chief justice.

Another reason why Kelly versus Dorow can’t be compared to the Michels versus Kleefisch primary last year is how many fewer votes will be cast in a February primary for the Supreme Court, compared to August 2020 primaries for governor. Voters cast 663,833 votes in the February 2020 primary for the Supreme Court  between Kelly, Karofsky and Ed Fallone. That’s about 60% of the 1.1 million votes cast in the August primaries for governor between Republicans Michels and Kleefisch and the unopposed Evers.

One veteran Republican campaign adviser and former elected official handicapped the candidacies of Kelly and Darrow this way: “Dorow is the best-known candidate and Kelly is the best-funded candidate.

“There are elements of the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ crowd in both campaigns. For example, Kelly is a former incumbent with a bunch of GOP establishment consultants on his team but he also has the support of [Illinois business executive] Dick Uihlein, who is usually an ‘outsider’ supporter.

“Dorow seems to be getting a lot of talk radio help and they are usually in the ‘outsider’ lane as well.”

All of which makes it hard to handicap this race.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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One thought on “The State of Politics: High Court Race Divides Republicans”

  1. ringo muldano says:

    Dan Kelly will get the least votes.

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