Conservatives prepare to unite behind Kelly

By: - February 22, 2023 6:15 am

Dorow, who came in a close third, conceded the race while standing with her family in front of supporters at the Golden Mast Inn on Okauchee Lake. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Conservatives seemed prepared to unite behind former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly in the consequential race for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, after he beat the other conservative candidate Judge Jennifer Dorow during Tuesday’s primary. 

Kelly will face liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz — who was the top vote getter of the night with 46% of the vote around midnight — in the April 4th general election. Kelly, who came in second place, held around 26% of the vote. 

The winner in April will serve a 10-year term on the highest court in the state. 

Conservatives are looking to defend their current 4-3 majority on the court. The race, which has garnered national attention and money, will play a major role in the political future of Wisconsin, especially as the court is expected to decide on key issues including challenges to the state’s 1849 abortion ban and its gerrymandered voting map in the near future.

Dorow, who came in a close third, conceded the race while standing with her family in front of supporters at the Golden Mast Inn on Okauchee Lake.

“We came up a little short,” Dorow said.

Her daughter sobbed into her hands while Dorow quickly endorsed Kelly.

“The voters of Wisconsin will have a very stark choice come April 4th. They can vote for a Milwaukee judge, who has pre-judged so many issues already, who has told us how she will rule, telling us she will put her thumb on the scale of justice,” Dorow said on Tuesday night. “We know that with Dan Kelly, he will be fair. He will be impartial and he will let the law guide every decision that he makes.” 

Attendees, who started the night hopeful of Dorow’s chances, seemed resigned to the idea of backing Kelly after it became clear he would be the candidate to defend the conservative majority on the court. 

Jeffrey Pfannerstill, Hartland village president, said early in the night that he was concerned about how Kelly would fare in the general election because he lost his previous run for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Kelly was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2016. When he ran to hold onto his seat in 2020, he lost to liberal Justice Jill Karofsky by a 10-point margin. 

“My fear is I think that it’s going to be very hard for Dan Kelly to win in general as he’s already lost that,” Pfannerstill said. “I’m still going to support him, I will support him if he wins the primary election for dollars, but I’m going to be very concerned and nervous about the general.” 

Pfannerstill said he was ready to throw his support behind Kelly in the face of a Dorow loss because he likes the direction that Wisconsin is headed and doesn’t want to see the court change anything. 

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman — who endorsed Dorow two days before Tuesday’s primary — said he would find it “very easy” to switch his support over to Kelly.

Dorow shaking hands with U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman after conceding Tuesday night. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

“Judge Dorow ran a very strong campaign, and I am prepared to do what I can to help Dan Kelly tomorrow,” Grothman said on Tuesday night. 

“The results don’t look good honestly,” Claire Seduchak, an Oconomowoc resident, said around 9:30 p.m. 

Seduchak took issue with Kelly’s refusal to commit to endorsing Dorow if she had won. She also said that, as someone who is ambivalent on abortion issues and thinks that people should still be able to access abortion in certain cases, Kelly’s no-exceptions stance on abortion could cause him some trouble in the general election, especially as Protasiewicz is likely to continue her campaign messaging focused on abortion. 

Seduchak, despite her concerns, said she would be supporting Kelly because she doesn’t believe any justices should be making laws from the bench, as she believes Protasiewicz would do. 

“That’s my big fear is they’re going to overturn a lot of things,” Seduchak said. “That’s not the way our government is set up. Rules are supposed to enable the legislative branch and you know, those things aren’t supposed to be legislated from the bench.” 

At his campaign event down the road from Dorow’s event, Kelly — who spent the primary promoting his “constitutional conservatism” — argued that Protasiewicz is a “brave and novel threat” to the Supreme Court.

“Now it’s time to talk about the dangers that Janet presents to our court, and the dangers she presents to our liberties. I’m confident that people all over the state of Wisconsin are going to be supporting my campaign,” Kelly said Tuesday night.

Shortly after being declared the second winner of the night, Kelly’s family gathered along with other attendees at the primary night watch party and sang the Star Spangled Banner. 

If Kelly wins in April, conservatives will hold the majority on the Court until 2026. A Protasiewicz victory would mean there would be a liberal majority on the court for the first time in decades.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.