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Wisconsin court win gives liberals upper hand in battleground state

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz wins 10-year term

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Dan Kelly, who is backed by Republicans, and Janet Protasiewicz, who is backed by Democrats, participate in a March 21 debate in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Dan Kelly, who is backed by Republicans, and Janet Protasiewicz, who is backed by Democrats, participate in a March 21 debate in Madison, Wis. (Morry Gash/AP file photo)

Liberals secured a majority on Wisconsin’s highest court for the first time in over a decade with the election of Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz on Tuesday. 

The result of the nationally watched race, which shattered spending records well before its conclusion on Election Day, breaks the hold conservatives have had on the state Supreme Court since 2008 and carries potential implications for abortion access and redistricting measures in the key swing state. 

The Associated Press called the election for Protasiewicz at 9:55 p.m. Eastern time, less than an hour after polls closed. Protasiewicz had a 14-point lead over her conservative opponent, Daniel Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who lost his seat in an election three years ago. 

With Protasiewicz’s victory, liberals will have a 4-3 majority on the bench starting in August, an edge they’d be able to hold through the forthcoming presidential election cycle. The next chance conservatives will have to win back control of the court is spring 2025, when liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s current 10-year term ends. 

In the interim, the court could shape everything from the issues at play in 2024, when Wisconsin will host a key U.S. Senate election, to the partisan split of the state legislature and — potentially — the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Beyond that, justices could be asked once again to rule on the results of the presidential contest. In 2020, the court narrowly moved to uphold President Joe Biden’s slim win of the Midwestern battleground, with one conservative justice — who has acted as a swing vote in other major cases — siding with the liberal minority to defeat then-President Donald Trump’s challenge seeking to overturn the outcome. 

The state court’s role is especially notable given the divided government in Wisconsin, which has a Democratic governor and strong Republican legislative majorities. At the national level, the GOP holds six of the state’s eight House seats and one of the two U.S. Senate seats; the other is held by Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who’s up for reelection next year.

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