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Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates make final push in hotly-contested campaign

Justice Dan Kelly and Judge Janet Protasiewicz are making their final appeals to voters amid news of the indictment of former President Donald Trump

Former Justice Dan Kelly speaks to GOP activists at the headquarters of the Republican Party of Fond du Lac on Friday, March 31. Joe Schulz/WPR

Candidates for Wisconsins hotly contested open Supreme Court seat made their final push for votes over the weekend, before a backdrop of the first-ever criminal indictment of a U.S. president.

Justice Dan Kelly maintained a packed schedule of appearances across the state over the weekend, with appearances in churches, community spaces and GOP offices from Fond du Lac to Eau Claire.

Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who has been ill, canceled a planned appearance in Madison on Saturday. Instead, surrogate campaigners, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, went on the stump on her behalf in Madison, Milwaukee and Waukesha.

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Protasiewicz has received significant campaign support from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The party has organized canvassing efforts in Madison, featuring Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The nominally nonpartisan race has attracted significant attention and huge influxes of cash, transforming it into what has become the most expensive court race in American history.

It’s also distinguished from past races in a surprising way: the last-minute announcement of charges brought against Republican former President Donald Trump in New York criminal court on Thursday night.

Experts and organizers said they don’t expect the charges to significantly affect turnout or voter sentiment on Tuesday.

“There is little time left to organize voter turnout around the Trump indictment. The campaign issues have been fully set, advertising as pushed those issues, and Trump hasn’t been a part of the campaign rhetoric,” Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, told Wisconsin Public Radio in an email. “So introducing him this late seems to step on the messages that were central to the campaign.”

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

Speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party leader Ben Wikler said he thought the election would be decided by voters’ feelings about issues like abortion, not the Trump charges.

“I think Wisconsin voters won’t be distracted by what’s happening in New York,” he said. “The election that’s happening on April 4 is so enormously consequential for voters on both sides that it has really focused the mind. And whatever else might be happening in the news cycle … people have made up their minds.”

Brian Schimming, the chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement that the Trump charges are a “political game for the left.”

“This type of overreach from the DA is an abuse of power, a grave danger to democracy, and what happens when liberals decide to politicize the judicial branch of government,” Schimming said.

Trump has played a role in Wisconsin Supreme Court races in the past. In 2018, liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet ran ads attacking Trump. She won that race. In 2019, a last-minute ad buy by the Republican State Leadership Committee used Trump to churn up the Republican vote for conservative Bryan Hagedorn. He won that election.

The candidates themselves did not seem eager to bring Trump into their weekend messaging. Kelly declined to speak to a WPR reporter at an appearance at the Fond Du Lac GOP headquarters on Friday.

Trump’s name did not come up at that event. Instead, party activists and Kelly focused on what have been a central theme of their campaign: the idea that Protasiewicz is an overly politicized candidate.

A spokesperson for Protasiewicz likewise said her campaign was not concerned about a criminal case in New York. That campaign, too, is spending its final days focused on specific issues that may appear before the court, such as abortion access and voting rights.

“We’re focused on winning a critical election in four days that will have long-term consequences for millions of Wisconsinites when it comes to issues like reproductive rights and the strength of our democracy,” Sam Roecker, a Protasiewicz spokesperson, said in a statement. “We know voters are focused on this race because it’s an opportunity to return fairness and impartiality to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

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