Abortion rights, electability emerge as dominant themes in Wisconsin Supreme Court primary

Outside groups, which in recent years have raised enormous sums to fund campaigns, are largely waiting until after the Feb. 21 primary before backing a candidate.

File: Wisconsin Supreme Court.jpg
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis.
Angela Major / File / WPR

MADISON — For being such a consequential race, the campaign for Wisconsin Supreme Court is off to a slow start.

Outside groups, which in recent years have raised enormous sums to fund campaigns, are largely waiting until after the Feb. 21 primary before backing a candidate. Only one candidate — liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz — has aired television ads so far.

But two themes are beginning to emerge, around abortion and electability.

Liberals have cast the April 4 election as a referendum on abortion rights, since the next justice will likely help determine the fate of Wisconsin's near-total abortion ban. The issue is a prominent theme in both of Protasiewicz's ads. In one, she says, "I believe in a woman's freedom to make her own decision on abortion."

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell, the other liberal in the race, said at a recent candidate forum that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade threatened the concept of privacy.


The conservative candidates, former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow, have been endorsed by anti-abortion groups. One of the groups, Pro-Life Wisconsin, which endorsed only Kelly, says on its website that they support candidates "who recognize the personhood of the preborn baby and hold the principled and compassionate no-exceptions pro-life position."

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But the candidates and their backers have mostly limited their comments on abortion to criticizing their liberal opponents for speaking so freely about the issue.

"When someone tells you what their values are in an answer to a legal question, they're telling you how they're likely to decide a case," Kelly said of Protasiewicz at this month's forum.

Dorow did, however, say on the conservative "Regular Joe Show" this week that she agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the states to decide.

Among conservatives, an emerging theme of the campaign has been who is more likely to win the general election and maintain the 4-3 conservative majority on the court. Some Dorow supporters have pointed to Kelly's 2020 election loss to a liberal as an indication that he wouldn't be able to win this April. A victory by Protasiewicz or Mitchell would give the court a liberal majority.

But some Kelly supporters, like conservative state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, have said Dorow isn't prepared for the job.

In an op-ed, Bradley said Dorow's consistent use of a binder to read prepared statements in response to questions during this month's WisPolitics forum illustrated her lack of experience.

"Whoever makes it out of the primary must be prepared to fight through the general election," she wrote in the Waukesha Freeman. "A candidate using a binder to provide answers to questions is simply unprepared for the rigors of a statewide campaign, much less to do the job of a Supreme Court justice."


Responding to another prominent Kelly supporter saying she wasn't qualified for the job, Dorow, in audio obtained by 1130 WISN-AM, told the Kelly campaign to stop throwing mud at fellow conservatives, blaming the infighting for conservatives losing "general election after general election."

She also went after Kelly directly, saying candidates like him "attack fellow conservatives time after time, frankly to distract from their own deficiencies and because they know they're not the frontrunner."

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