April 4 Wisconsin court race critical for abortion rights and 2024 election nationwide
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. | Photo courtesy of Janet Protasiewicz’ campaign

There has never been a judicial election anything like the one underway now in Wisconsin. The candidate who wins the swing seat in the race is expected to determine the future of abortion rights in Wisconsin and very possibly whether the fascist Republican right is able to win the presidential election in 2024.

The candidates, the political parties behind them and the voters are aware that this is a high stakes election with no one even attempting to pretend that this single contest for a judgeship is at all apolitical. The winner will determine whether the state court has a right wing or a progressive agenda for the foreseeable future.

People gathered in restaurants, bars, playgrounds, bus and train stations and around their kitchen and dining room tables are talking about the race, something not normally seen in judicial elections.

The race confirms once again, after the right-wing takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court, that voters can no longer assume that judges are not critical to the future of the country. Elections to the courts in America are now clearly important political events to which everyone needs to pay attention.

This race for a seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court will change how such races are carried out in the more than 20 other states where the members of the highest court in those states, like Wisconsin, are elected by the voters.

In the Wisconsin race the right wing Republican David Kelly faces a liberal opponent, Janet Protasiewiecz. The April 4 election has become a battle for abortion rights in Wisconsin where abortion is now illegal.

Reflecting national trends

Reflecting national trends where women are leading a majority movement in favor of abortion rights, Protasiewiecz is leading in the polls. She also has a major fund -raising edge with small grass roots donors pouring money into her campaign.

Kelly has a long record of advocating for right wing causes and has the backing of major anti- abortion groups in Wisconsin. He appears to be afraid, however, of coming out too openly with his anti-abortion agenda, recognizing that majorities in Wisconsin, as elsewhere across the country, actually support women’s reproductive rights.

Protasiewiecz is unafraid to tout her positions in favor of abortion rights and a host of other progressive issues. In a recent debate with Kelly she did not try to hide how she would rule on Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. A challenge to that ban, which went back into effect after the Supreme Court killed Roe v. Wade, will reach the state court fairly soon after either she or Kelly is elected.

Democrats expect to win the judgeship battle on the basis of popular support for abortion rights. Sarah Godlewski, the Democratic secretary of state said last week in Green Bay that “when we ate talking about reproductive freedom, we’re going to be able to win on this message.”

And beyond the abortion rights issue the outcome of the 2024 presidential election can hinge on what happens in this race in Wisconsin. The winner will be elected for a 10-year term and will be the deciding vote in a four to three majority which will also rule on voting matters before and during the 2024 presidential election.

If Protasiewicz wins the Democrats will be able to reverse the state’s gerrymandered maps. She has already, during her campaign, described those Republican drawn maps as “rigged.”

While most of the usual supporters of state Democrats are on board with her campaign there is a major glitch in Milwaukee where BLOC, an African American community group has not come out to back her campaign. The reason is that she had sentenced the son of one of the group’s leaders to 20 years in prison for a hit and run crash that killed two children.

Republicans face divisions, however, not the least of which is that many of their voters also support abortion rights.

Ironically, Republicans have boxed themselves into a corner on the issue of finances for their campaign. They have voted to lift the limits on how much money big donors can pour into state elections. With the Democrats on the popular side of the abortion rights issue, they have been able to raise far more money than Republicans and are benefitting, even if only in this race, from loose laws the Republicans put in place.

Some of the GOP’s usual billionaire donors don’t want to fund the race of an anti-abortion judge who they think may very well lose his election. That situation has allowed Democrats to broadcast $10 million in TV ads while Republicans have only been able to spend $300.000. Ironically, it is Republicans in Wisconsin now crying about “outside money” buying a seat on the Supreme Court. They don’t like facing the fact, however, that killing abortion rights is not something that is popular with voters in Wisconsin or across the nation and that this is what is fueling donations to the Judge Protasiewiecz campaign.

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.