Liberal outraises conservative in Wisconsin court race

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Democratic-funded candidate in Wisconsin’s pivotal state Supreme Court contest has raised more than five times as much money as her Republican-backed opponent ahead of the April 4 election.

Liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz raised nearly $12.4 million in the final campaign finance reporting period between Feb. 7 and March 20, reports filed late Monday show. Her conservative opponent, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, raised $2.2 million during the same period.

The winner of the country’s most expensive state Supreme Court race to date will determine majority control of Wisconsin’s high court with issues such as abortion access, legislative redistricting, union rights and election laws at stake. The race has garnered national attention, given Wisconsin’s importance as a presidential swing state.

The state Supreme Court came within a vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. Conservatives have controlled the court for 15 years, but the winner will determine majority control for at least the next two years, including before and immediately after the 2024 presidential race.

Since launching their campaigns, Protasiewicz has raised $14.5 million, more than $8.8 million of it coming from the state Democratic Party. Kelly has raised more than $2.7 million. He received nearly half-a-million dollars’ worth of in-kind contributions from the state Republican Party and nearly $50,000 in donations from county Republican parties and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee.

Protasiewicz’s fundraising advantage allowed her to get TV ads on the air weeks before Kelly and his conservative backers could counter. As of March 22, her campaign had bought or reserved more than $10.1 million in ads, while Kelly had spent about $460,000, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Over the most recent six-week reporting period, Protasiewicz spent more than $8.3 million on ads compared with roughly $364,000 by Kelly. Third-party groups have helped Kelly narrow the gap, but Protasiewicz’s side still had spent more on TV and radio ads, based on tallies by the Brennan Center and others.

All of the spending, estimated at more than $30 million and climbing, has made the race the most expensive for a court seat in U.S. history. The prior record high was $15.4 million spent on an Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004.

Protasiewicz has made her support for abortion rights a central focus of her ads and campaign. She has also attacked Kelly for his past work for Republicans and Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

Kelly has tried to paint Protasiewicz as weak on crime, citing numerous cases where he alleges she handed soft sentences to criminals — some of whom went on to reoffend.

Protasiewicz reported 28 donors over the most recent reporting period who gave the maximum of $20,000 allowed, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Billionaire financier George Soros donated $1 million to the state Democratic Party. Both donations came the day after the Feb. 21 primary. Only three of her maximum donors came from Wisconsin, including former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

The number of out-of-state donations points to the national spotlight on this race, which has become a frontline battle over abortion access. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to decide a pending lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 near-total ban on abortion.

Kelly reported 19 donations at the maximum of $20,000 this period, including from Beloit billionaire and GOP mega-donor Diane Hendricks. Unlike his opponent, all of his top donors came from Wisconsin except for three.

Protasiewicz ended the reporting period with just over $2 million cash on hand, compared with about $395,000 for Kelly.