In Wisconsin, Liberals Barrage Conservative Court Candidate With Attack Ads

As conservatives in Wisconsin seek to maintain control of the State Supreme Court in an all-important election for a crucial swing seat, they would appear to be fighting uphill.

The conservative candidate, Daniel Kelly, is trailing in limited private polling of the race. Abortion rights, which powered Democrats in the midterm elections, are driving the party to shovel enormous sums of money into the campaign. And perhaps most significantly, Justice Kelly’s campaign has been outspent by a staggering margin on television since the Feb. 21 primary: $9.1 million to nothing.

But Justice Kelly, who sat on the court before losing re-election in 2020, appears unfazed. He told supporters on Sunday in northwest Wisconsin that help was on the way from unidentified outside groups in his race against Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee County judge opposing him in the April 4 election.

“Because there are nationwide organizations that care about the rule of law, about the constitutional order, and they are spending to promote our campaign, you should start seeing the effects of them this coming week,” Justice Kelly told a gathering of the Northland Freedom Alliance in Webster, Wis. “Right now, it’s kind of wall-to-wall Janet. And I object to that. There, I’m told the cavalry is on the way. And so hopefully, they’ll have some good and smart and true ads.”

Wisconsin is at the midway point of a six-week general election for a seat that will determine the balance of the State Supreme Court. Victory by Justice Kelly would preserve conservatives’ sway over the court, which they have controlled since 2008, while success by Judge Protasiewicz would give Wisconsin liberals an opportunity to legalize abortion rights and invalidate the state’s Republican-drawn gerrymandered legislative maps, as well as roll back other measures put in place by the court and G.O.P. lawmakers.

More on Abortion Issues in America

  • Abortion Pill Case: The federal judge in a closely watched lawsuit that seeks to overturn federal approval of a widely used abortion pill has scheduled the first hearing in the case — but he planned to delay making the public aware of it.
  • Walgreens: A few weeks after Republican attorneys general in 21 states threatened legal action against retail pharmacy chains if they dispensed the abortion pill mifepristone, Walgreens said it would not distribute the pill in those states. The chain’s decision triggered blowback from consumers and politicians; California said that it would not renew a multimillion contract with the company.
  • In Florida: Florida Republicans introduced parallel bills in the House and in the Senate that would further restrict the state’s abortion ban to six from 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The New York Times obtained a recording of Justice Kelly’s remarks, in which he addressed an array of issues likely to be decided in the high-stakes race and estimated that his campaign would raise $2 million to $2.5 million. He also again sought to draw a contrast with Judge Protasiewicz, who has been remarkably open about her political views, by asserting that his comments articulating his judicial philosophy do not constitute broadcasting his personal political positions.

“I don’t talk about my politics for the same reason I don’t campaign on who the Packers’ next quarterback should be,” he said. “It has no effect on the job.”

While Justice Kelly promised that the cavalry was on the way, it’s unclear whether it will be enough to turn the tide of the battle.

Only one national organization has spent anything on television to support the Kelly campaign: the super PAC Fair Courts America, which is backed by Richard Uihlein, the conservative billionaire. So far in the general election, Fair Courts America has spent $2.3 million on TV ads. This week, it began a further $450,000 in statewide radio advertising, but the group has not yet committed to investing more in the race, according to a person familiar with Mr. Uihlein’s decisions who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The biggest pro-Kelly spender, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s business lobby, has spent $3.4 million on his behalf so far. Nick Novak, a spokesman for the group, declined to comment on the group’s future plans. A Fair Courts America spokesman did not respond to messages on Tuesday. The flood of Protasiewicz ads have attacked Justice Kelly for his opposition to abortion rights, past statements attacking Social Security and his association with Republican attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, among other issues.

Mr. Kelly’s spokesman, Ben Voelkel, said Mr. Kelly was filming a television ad on Tuesday. He predicted the Kelly campaign and its allies would soon catch up with Judge Protasiewicz and Democrats in overall television spending, but at the same time suggested the millions of dollars spent of television time was wasted in a relatively low-turnout April election.

“We’re reaching out to voters in a lot of different ways,” Mr. Voelkel said. “They are spending millions of dollars for an election that’s not going to have a big turnout. We’ve taken a slightly different approach.”

Wisconsin’s municipal clerks began placing absentee ballots for the Supreme Court election in the mail this week, and in-person ballots can be cast starting next Tuesday. Private polling conducted by officials on both sides of the race shows Judge Protasiewicz with a lead over Justice Kelly in the mid-to-high single digits. Mr. Voelkel disputed that Justice Kelly was trailing but declined to reveal the campaign’s figures.

The court election is formally a nonpartisan contest, but there is little mystery about where the candidates stand politically. The bulk of Judge Protasiewicz’s campaign money has come from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which can transfer unlimited amounts under state law. Justice Kelly has worked as a lawyer for the Republican National Committee, which hired him to focus on “election integrity” issues for the party during and after the 2020 election.

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton endorsed Judge Protasiewicz. Justice Kelly was endorsed by President Donald J. Trump during the justice’s 2020 re-election campaign, which he lost.

In the last three weeks, the Protasiewicz campaign has spent $9.1 million on television advertising, and outside groups supporting her have spent $2.03 million, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

The imbalance on Wisconsin’s television airwaves is even greater than the spending figures suggest.

Because the Protasiewicz campaign is able to buy television advertising at about one-third the rate of independent expenditure groups, she alone has broadcast more than three times as many TV advertisements in Wisconsin as the pro-Kelly groups combined, according to AdImpact’s data.

“Dan Kelly has been relying on extreme right-wing groups to save his campaign with millions of dollars in ads that lie about Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s record,” said Sam Roecker, a spokesman for the Protasiewicz campaign.

The election is already the most expensive judicial race in American history, with at least $27 million spent so far on television alone. A 2004 contest for the Illinois Supreme Court previously had the most spending, at $15 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In an interview on the eve of the primary last month, Justice Kelly said he had not received any private spending commitments from Mr. Uihlein and had not spoken with him since last summer.

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