Wisconsin High Court Race Narrows to Two Candidates

(CN) – The race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court winnowed down to an appointee of the Republican former governor and a liberal-leaning Madison judge on Tuesday, setting up a showdown for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky will move on to the April 7 general election, having garnered 49% and 38% of reported votes, with 70% reporting just before 9:30 p.m. Central time Tuesday night. Marquette University Law Professor Ed Fallone came in a distant third with 13% support.

Wisconsin Supreme Court interior. (Royalbroil/Creative Commons License)

Although the race is officially nonpartisan, Kelly and Karofsky’s face-off in April will stand as a microcosm of deeply entrenched partisan loyalties separating the state for the last decade plus.

On Tuesday, Karofsky easily carried the typically liberal enclaves in the state’s biggest urban areas immediately adjacent the cities of Milwaukee and Madison, while Kelly cruised to victory in the more rural parts of northern and western Wisconsin in addition to the conservative suburbs west of Milwaukee.

Kelly, appointed to the high court by Governor Scott Walker in 2016, is a denizen of Wisconsin’s conservative establishment. 

He graduated from Regent University School of Law, founded in 1977 by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson under the original name of Christian Broadcasting Network University before it rebranded to its current name in 1990.

Formerly an attorney with Milwaukee-based firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren before founding his own firm, Kelly represented state Republicans in a federal trial over legislative redistricting brought in 2011 by liberals who contended the maps had been illegally and secretively drawn to provide conservatives an outsized advantage. The case was ultimately dismissed by a Wisconsin federal judge last July after being punted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kelly also came to the defense of lame-duck laws passed by the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature in December 2018, which reined in a variety of the powers of Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats. Kelly’s voice in the 5-2 conservative majority on the high court has helped uphold the laws at nearly every turn through more than a year of bitter litigation.

Since his appointment to the state’s Supreme Court, Kelly, who is a member of the Federalist Society and sat on the advisory board of conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, has been accused of being in lockstep with conservative causes while painting himself as a strict adherent to straightforward constitutional interpretation. 

Kelly has a war chest of more than $1 million raised over 13 months, boasting an enviable fundraising advantage more than twice what Karofsky has rounded up in the same amount of time. The justice has also secured key endorsements, including from President Donald Trump, who stressed the importance of Kelly retaining his seat at a Milwaukee rally in January.

Karofsky, in many ways Kelly’s polar opposite, has been perceived as toeing the party line as a dyed-in-the-wool Madison liberal, even though she opined in a speech at a Wisconsin Democratic convention in June that the legal and judiciary systems have become regrettably politicized.

The candidate, who made her bones as an assistant prosecutor in the Dane County district attorney’s office and as executive director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of Crime Victims Services, was elected to the Dane County Circuit Court in 2017. She has signaled support for a number of issues traditionally key for liberals, including public schools, women’s rights and protecting the environment.

Karofsky has also tallied some important endorsements, including current Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet and former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle.

To put it lightly, Kelly and Karofsky have clashed in recent past. During a chippy candidate forum at the Milwaukee Bar Association last month, Kelly defended himself against Karofsky’s accusations that he is corrupted by his conservative benefactors because he repeatedly rules in conservatives’ favor. Kelly, who has accused Karofsky herself of being a liberal judicial activist, took her to task for what he called “disgusting slander,” and he described her corruption allegations as being “beneath contempt.”

Tuesday’s results more or less reinforced the standardized political divisions in Wisconsin. A clear message from the results, however, is that conservatives’ ground game in the state appears to be working to some extent. Not only did Kelly have more than 60,000 votes on Karofsky as of Tuesday night but he lost to Karofsky by only 2% in liberal-leaning Milwaukee County, where the Republican Party of Wisconsin recently opened a field office for the first time in a predominantly-black neighborhood on the city’s north side.

But the Democratic voter turnout is expected to be high for the April 7 general election, which falls on the same day as Wisconsin’s presidential primary. This leaves open the possibility of the same kind of blue wave seen in the 2018 midterms, when liberals won every statewide office, including the attorney general’s post and the governorship.

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