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Dan Kelly, Janet Protasiewicz get personal in debate for Wisconsin’s hotly-contested Supreme Court seat

Kelly repeatedly accused Protasiewicz of lying while Protasiewicz called Kelly an enemy of democracy

Janet Protasiewicz is seen from the side standing at a podium. Dan Kelly points at his head as he looks her way while answering a question.
Justice Dan Kelly, right, speaks to Judge Janet Protasiewicz, left, during a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The candidates for Wisconsin’s high-profile Supreme Court race got personal during their only debate Tuesday, with former Justice Dan Kelly repeatedly calling Judge Janet Protasiewicz a liar and Protasiewicz calling Kelly a threat to democracy itself.

The sharp attacks mirrored the tenor of the campaign, which has already shattered the previous national record for spending on a state supreme court race, fueled largely by attack ads painting both candidates as too extreme or soft on crime.

Protasiewicz and Kelly didn’t hold back in person. Standing across from one other on a stage at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s headquarters in Madison, Kelly spent much of the debate looking at and gesturing toward Protasiewicz as he delivered attacks, repeatedly referring to her only as “Janet.” Protasiewicz rarely looked in Kelly’s direction, referring to him only as “my opponent.”

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The two candidates stand at podiums on stage. A sign for the State Bar of Wisconsin hangs behind them.
Judge Janet Protasiewicz, left, and Justice Dan Kelly, right, participate in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Things got heated early when Protasiewicz was asked why the abortion rights groups, Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, would endorse her if they didn’t expect her to strike down the state’s abortion ban. Protasiewicz has repeatedly said she believes in a woman’s right to choose but that she would rule on any abortion cases based on the law.

“But I can tell you that if my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty, that 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books,” Protasiewicz said.

Protasiewicz pointed to Kelly’s endorsements by anti-abortion groups, but Kelly said he’d never made any promises about how he would rule, either.

“This seems to be a pattern for you, Janet. Just telling lies. So you don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban. You have no idea,” he said.

When Kelly was initially endorsed by Wisconsin Right to Life, a statement on the group’s website said endorsed candidates “have pledged to champion pro-life values.” But after the state’s February Supreme Court primary, the group added language saying that in judicial elections, it “endorses candidates whose judicial philosophies and values fit with those of Wisconsin Right to Life.” Wisconsin Right to Life lobbyist Gracie Skogman said the group’s policy on judicial endorsements had not changed and that the new language was meant to clarify its position.

Janet Protasiewicz points at Dan Kelly as they debate on stage.
Judge Janet Protasiewicz points at Justice Dan Kelly during a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Money, recusal and support from outside groups

Money is flowing to Wisconsin’s Supreme race because of what’s at stake here. A win by Kelly, who is supported by Republicans, would preserve the court’s conservative majority. A win by Protasiewicz, who’s backed by Democrats, would flip the ideological balance of the court to liberals at a time when justices could consider challenges to Wisconsin’s abortion ban and the state’s Republican-drawn redistricting plan.

Protasiewicz’s biggest donor has been the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, while Kelly has benefited from millions of dollars in outside spending, some of it funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

During the primary, when Kelly was competing for votes with fellow conservative Judge Jennifer Dorow, he told Republican activists that outside groups would spend millions supporting him in the general election, but not Dorow.

Dan Kelly speaks at a podium as people watch from the crowd.
Justice Dan Kelly answers a question during a debate with opponent Judge Janet Protasiewicz on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

He was asked Tuesday how he knew those groups would support him, and whether they were coordinating with his campaign.

“We have no communication with the outside groups,” Kelly said. “I listen to what’s publicly said.”

“That doesn’t sound truthful to me,” Protasiewicz responded. “During the primary, Justice Kelly bragged that the money would be following him.”

“This is you being quick to lie,” replied Kelly. “This has been apparent through all of your ads against me. It’s been apparent every time you speak about me. It’s just full of deceit and dishonesty.”

When it comes to recusal, Protasiewicz said she would not hear cases involving the Democratic Party of Wisconsin because it could appear unfair to some members of the public. Kelly has not promised to recuse himself from cases involving WMC or any other donors, whom he said have a First Amendment right to get involved in campaigns.

“This is what our Constitution protects,” Kelly said. “This is the best tradition of democracy in our country.”

The two candidates are seen on stage during a debate.
Justice Dan Kelly, right, and Judge Janet Protasiewicz, left, listen as a question is asked during a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Partisanship on the court

Protasiewicz saved her sharpest attack against Kelly for a question about how the candidates would avoid appearing partisan on the court.

“I am running against probably one of the most extreme partisan characters in the history of the state,” Protasiewicz said.

She pointed to his previous campaign for the state Supreme Court, which Kelly ran from the state GOP’s Madison headquarters. Protasiewicz also highlighted Kelly’s work as an attorney advising the state Republican Party on its fake electors scheme after the 2020 election.

Janet Protasiewicz stands behind a podium on stage during a debate.
Judge Janet Protasiewicz answers a question during a debate with opponent Justice Dan Kelly on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“He is a true threat to our democracy,” Protasiewicz said.

Kelly has said his advice on the fake electors amounted to a 30-minute conversation.

“Once again, you’re lying,” Kelly said.

While this was the first and only debate between Kelly and Protasiewicz, the two are scheduled to appear Thursday on Wisconsin Public Radio.