Protasiewicz cruises to primary victory with focus on her ‘values’

By: - February 22, 2023 6:17 am

Judge Janet Protasiewicz addresses the crowd after her primary victory. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

With support from the state’s liberal establishment and massive amounts of money, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz easily made it through Tuesday’s four-way primary for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

Protasiewicz’ campaign strategy of openly sharing the “values” she holds as they relate to some of the state’s most pressing issues was successful — earning her more votes than any of the other three candidates on Tuesday’s ticket. Her more than 445,000 votes surpassed the combined total of the two conservatives, former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, the other winner, and Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow. 

Kelly finished with more than 232,000 votes and Dorow came in third with more than 209,000 votes. The fourth candidate, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, also a liberal, garnered over 71,000 votes.

“I can’t tell you how I’ll hold in any case, but throughout this race, I’ve been absolutely clear about what my values are,” Protasiewicz said in her victory speech. “That’s because I believe the voters of this state deserve to know what a candidate’s values are. I value a woman’s freedom to make her own reproductive health care decisions. I value our democracy and I believe that every Wisconsinite deserves to be fairly represented. Your vote matters, everybody’s vote matters, and the constitution, our constitution, guarantees the right to vote and to have a representative democracy in this country. I value public safety and I believe that everybody deserves to live in a safe community. We need to uphold our laws, protect the rights of victims and hold offenders accountable. These are not partisan values, it’s common sense.”

At the Protasiewicz election night party at the Cooperage in Milwaukee, many of the state’s liberal power holders were in attendance to witness what they hoped would be their first step toward gaining majority control of the court, which has been in conservative hands since 2008. Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez, former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state Sen. LaTonya Johnson and Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler were all at the event. So were all three current liberal members of the court: Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky — who were planning a “justice sleepover” at Dallet’s Milwaukee area home. 

A potential change in the court’s majority has Democrats eyeing Wisconsin’s 1849 law banning abortion in nearly all instances and its heavily gerrymandered legislative maps as immediate targets for lawsuits challenging their legitimacy. 

“I’m here because instead of dissents, I want to be writing majorities,” Dallet said in a speech introducing Protasiewicz. 

Throughout the night, attendees took aim at the court’s current majority and the two conservatives vying to replace retiring Justice Patience Roggensack. Dallet pointed to the “egregious twisting of the law” she believes has occurred under the conservative majority while Protasiewicz warned that neither Dorow nor Kelly shared the “common sense values” she espouses. 

“People are ready for a justice who believes in fairness to all,” she said. “I can promise you I will always make decisions based on the law, never based on partisan, extreme beliefs.”

The crowd at the Cooperage in Milwaukee after Protasiewicz’ primary win. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

In her speech, Protasiewicz said Tuesday night would be for celebrating the primary win, but on Wednesday the race to the general election begins. 

“We cannot take our foot off the pedal for a second because April 4 is a mere 42 days away,” she said. “Our work is far from over.”

The general election is expected to break records for campaign spending after millions of dollars were spent just in the primary. Protasiewicz cruised to victory after bringing in a record $2.2 million in campaign contributions, while Kelly was able to win on the conservative side behind hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending and a pitch that he’ll be able to keep that money flowing. 

The Democrats in attendance knew the race was going to be expensive, but said it would be worth it to flip the court. 

“This will be an expensive race, but I can’t think of anything more important right now than making sure we elect Judge Janet Protasiewicz,” Rodriguez told the Wisconsin Examiner.  

After primary votes were cast, the general election has begun to find a similar shape to the governor’s race last November, with Kelly and his outside support pushing a tough-on-crime message similar to losing gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels while Protasiewicz and Democrats focus on abortion and democracy. 

Barnes, who narrowly lost the U.S. Senate race in November to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in a campaign that often centered on crime, told the Examiner he believes voters will see through that message this time. 

“Dorow and Kelly are both trying to deflect from their extremist records, their extreme points of view, their attacks on democracy, their attacks on freedom,” he said. “So with that being said, people see clearly who’s going to stand up for them, who’s going to do the right thing. When I say stand up for them, I mean stand up for justice, stand up for fairness and opportunity, that’s Janet. I’m pretty optimistic of people understanding what’s happening and seeing through attempts to divide the state.”


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.