Candidates expected to debate just once before Wisconsin’s consequential Supreme Court election

Former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Judge Janet Protasiewicz are scheduled to debate March 21 after Protasiewicz declined other invitations

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. Photos courtesy of the campaigns

The candidates in Wisconsin’s consequential Supreme Court race may participate in just one debate together, according to schedules released by the candidates.

On Monday, former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Judge Janet Protasiewicz released their respective debate schedules. Only one event was shared by both candidates — the State Bar of Wisconsin’s debate on March 21.

The State Bar event was the only debate Protasiewicz has agreed to participate in. Kelly’s list included debates planned by the Milwaukee Press Club, the Dane County Bar Association, the Downtown Madison Rotary, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and multiple media outlets, including PBS Wisconsin.

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It is unclear whether those debates will continue as scheduled without the participation of Protasiewicz.

Both candidates have confirmed that they will sit down with the editorial boards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal.

Protasiewicz has also confirmed that she will participate in a youth voter forum hosted by All Voting is Local, Campus Vote Project and VoteRiders. Kelly’s campaign said he can’t attend that event because of a scheduling conflict.

In a statement, Kelly’s campaign accused Protasiewicz of ducking debates.

“It is outrageous that Politician Protasiewicz has promised to put her thumb on the scales of justice and rule based on her ‘values’ instead of the law, but now won’t even explain her soft-on-crime record and ties to extremist activists,” said Kelly campaign adviser Ben Voelkel.

The Protasiewicz campaign said Protasiewicz would highlight her background as a jurist in the events where she will participate.

“These are just a few of the many opportunities voters will have to compare Janet’s record as an experienced prosecutor and judge who is committed to protecting our constitutional freedoms and following the law, and Dan Kelly, an extremist who will use this seat to promote his own political agenda,” said Protasiewicz campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker. “The State Bar of Wisconsin has a long history of conducting debates in this race and we know this will be one great way for voters to hear from the candidates.”

Declining to participate in debates is often a sign that one side sees themselves as in the lead, said Michael Wagner, an expert on political communications at UW-Madison. A leading candidate won’t want to offer additional airtime to an opponent, he said.

“I think it means the voters get a less robust picture of who the candidates are,” Wagner said. “A debate provides an environment where you get to compare candidates side by side, and you get to compare them when they’re not in charge of the agenda, but responding to questions.”

Kelly and Protasiewicz both participated in a four-candidate forum hosted by WisPolitics before the February Supreme Court primary. They each spoke briefly at another recent forum hosted by the Wisconsin Counties Association, though they did not debate.

Kelly and Protasiewicz are running for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. While ostensibly a nonpartisan race, the ideological makeup of the court is at stake, as Kelly is favored by conservatives and Protasiewicz by liberals. Cases related to abortion access and the state’s legislative maps may be decided by this court, and millions of dollars have poured into the state to try and sway the outcome.

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