Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Protasiewicz Ahead In High Court Race

All signs suggest Kelly well behind in election for state Supreme Court. Can he catch up?

By - Mar 7th, 2023 05:00 pm
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. Photo courtesy of Janet Protasiewicz' campaign

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. Photo courtesy of Janet Protasiewicz’ campaign

There will be no Marquette poll before the spring election, so we can’t know for sure who is leading in the all-important race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. But the internal polling by the campaign of liberal Janet Protasiewicz, a source tells me, shows she is ahead of conservative Dan Kelly, with most independents going for Protasiewicz.

Certainly her campaign is acting like it has a comfortable lead, signaled by the fact Protasiewicz agreed to do only one candidate debate, sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin, on March 21. Kelly had agreed to at least four other debates, which the Protasiewicz campaign declined. Her campaign also turned down a joint appearance with Kelly before the Milwaukee Rotary Club.

When you’re ahead you don’t want to take any chances. Whereas Kelly has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing multiple debates.

Protasiewicz clearly preferred a race against Kelly, who lost his bid for election in 2020, after being appointed to the state Supreme Court and serving for four years. and who was seen as more extreme in his views than conservative Waukesha Judge Jennifer Dorow. That’s why liberal third party spending was targeted to take out Dorow, who lost narrowly to Kelly.

The Protasiewicz campaign has raised far more money than the Kelly campaign. As of Monday, Medium Buying tweeted, “The Dan Kelly campaign direct has still not placed any TV/radio ad spending.”

Of course Kelly has huge support from third party conservative groups, but even so started the general election behind those backing Protasiewicz. As a story on Monday by the Wisconsin State Journal reported, “conservatives didnt run any TV ads promoting Kelly in the first week after the primary. A conservative group since put down $1 million to boost Kelly, but thats a small fraction compared with the $7 million liberals have reserved, as of last week, in ads between the primary and general election.”

Ultimately there’s likely to be a lot of conservative third party spending on this race, but Democratic money, too, will be pouring in. New Republican Party Chairman Brian Schimming has called state Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler a master” at raising cash from out-of-state donors, as Urban Milwaukee has reported.

Moreover, the Democrats are united in this race while conservatives were bitterly divided between Kelly and Dorow, as Urban Milwaukee reported. Dorow has said she will support Kelly, but there are no signs of her actively campaigning for him.

Some conservatives, in fact, are already publicly panning Kelly’s campaign, telling the State Journal that his constant hammering of how he will defend the Constitution (Kelly used the word Constitution” or constitutional” 14 times in speech before the Wisconsin Counties Association) is not helping him.

Its very difficult to imagine voters keying in so strongly on the notion of protecting the Constitution,” longtime Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said. Voters respond to issues, whether theyre for or against. But something like defending the Constitution is almost nebulous.”

Moreover, Kelly is talking about the Wisconsin Constitution, which very few voters know anything about. They might know the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights,” Scholz noted, “but who knows the Wisconsin Constitution?”

Bill McCoshen, a veteran Republican operative who supported and advised Dorow during the primary, was similarly dismissive. I dont think its a broad enough message,” he said. The people who are hardcore supporters of the Constitution are already with Kelly. So hes not broadening his base.”

Compared to a nebulous issue like the Constitution, the abortion issue is about as impactful as it gets, and a significant majority of state voters support abortion rights. Protasiewicz is running ads hammering Kelly on this.

The only issue Kelly has is attacking Protasiewicz as soft on crime and sexual predators, but she is attacking him on the same issue.

Another concern for Kelly is the youth vote, which is typically a non-factor in lower turnout elections like a Supreme Court race, but there were signs in the primary that the abortion issue could drive a higher youth turnout. A statement by NextGen America President Cristina Tzintzún, released after primary, noted this: Early data shows that Wisconsins critical Supreme Court primary election Tuesday night was decided by a historic and overwhelming surge in youth voter turnout… At one of the main polling locations for UW-Madison freshmen, over 500 votes were cast – a major jump from 2019, when only 44 votes were cast in the same location.”

That was the election where conservative Brian Hagedorn was a surprise victor in the race for Supreme Court. That is the nightmare scenario for Democrats, and with four weeks still remaining before this year’s April 4th election that’s theoretically enough time for a Kelly comeback. But he’ll need to come up with a new issue, and doesn’t seem to realize it.

Kelly has predicted that voters will come out in droves to protect the Constitution.” Let me offer a counter-prediction: Declaring yourself the defender of the Wisconsin Constitution approved in 1848 sounds a bit too much like someone who strongly supports the state’s 1849 abortion ban. I don’t think that will get him elected.

One thought on “Murphy’s Law: Protasiewicz Ahead In High Court Race”

  1. Dan Wilson says:

    Judicial candidates debating seems unseemly. But that was then and this is now I guess.

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