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Money pours into Wisconsin Supreme Court race ahead of Feb. 21 primary

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz led her rivals in fundraising while outside groups also spent millions

Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber
Bill Martens/WPR

Money is pouring into the Wisconsin Supreme Court race ahead of the Feb. 21 primary, with one of the candidates far outpacing her rivals when it comes to fundraising.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission show Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who is backed by Democrats, has raised nearly $1.9 million since she got into the race last year. That’s about a half-million more than the campaigns of her three rivals combined.

More than $235,000 of Protasiewicz’ total came from large donations she reported in the past week alone. Of that, $206,000 came from out-of-state donors.

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The other candidate backed by Democrats, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, has reported raising a total of about $221,000 since he got into the race last year.

Among conservatives running for the court, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow has reported raising more than $720,000 since she got into the race in November. Dorow reported raising about $50,000 from large donors in the past week.

Former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, the other conservative in the race, has raised a total of $415,000 since he launched his campaign. Most of Kelly’s financial backing has come from outside groups, not from donations directly to his campaign.

While the fundraising numbers are large for a typically low-turnout February primary, they could pale in comparison to what is eventually spent on the Supreme Court race.

The two top vote-getters in the officially nonpartisan primary will advance to the April 4 general election. The winner will decide the ideological balance of the state’s highest court.

The race has grabbed national attention because it could decide key issues in swing-state Wisconsin, including whether to uphold the legislative maps drawn by Republicans and the legality of the state’s pre-Civil War abortion ban.

It’s led to a particularly aggressive campaign between Dorow and Kelly, with Dorow arguing she’s the most electable candidate and Kelly arguing he’s the most tested judicial conservative.

Big donors have boosted Kelly’s message. The group Fair Courts America, which supports Kelly, reported spending more than $812,000 through Feb. 6. It’s being funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, who gave $1.5 million to the group at the end of January.

The anti-abortion group Women Speak Out PAC also announced Tuesday it would support Kelly and pledged to spend “six figures” on his behalf.

The group A Better Wisconsin Together has been active on behalf of Democrats, raising more than a million dollars this year and spending $830,000 through Feb. 6. Its donors include Lynde Uihlein, the liberal philanthropist, who gave $250,000 to the group in January.

The firm AdImpact Politics, which tracks advertising, said Tuesday that it had recorded about $7 million spent on ads for the race so far, with $3.5 million spent supporting liberals and $3.4 million supporting conservatives.

According to the firm, A Better Wisconsin Together had spent $1.9 million on ads, Fair Courts America had spent $1.8 million and Protasiewicz had spent $1.6 million.

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