Wisconsin voters are heading to the polls Tuesday to determine which two candidates will proceed to compete for an open seat on the state Supreme Court. What may seem like a very specific statewide race in fact has massive implications for abortion, voting rights, and even national democracy.
The departure of a conservative judge, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, has left both parties eager to seize her spot. While the election is technically “nonpartisan,” conservatives are aiming to defend their slim 4–3 majority on the court while Democrats hope to flip control for the first time in 15 years.
Such high stakes mean this could soon be the most expensive race of the year, with some estimating the race’s spending to exceed $30 million. (The previously most expensive race for a single state Supreme Court seat involved $15.2 million spent in a 2004 Illinois race.)
Almost $8 million has already been spent on the primary. Four candidates—two liberals and two conservatives—are vying to move on to the final round of the election. Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz has become the leading Democratic candidate, netting some $2.3 million since entering the race. Her fellow liberal Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell has raised about $223,000. Conservatives are backing Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who lost his seat in 2020 to a liberal justice. Neither conservative candidate has surpassed $1 million in fundraising.
The stakes are all the higher as the rest of Wisconsin’s government branches are split. Democrat Tony Evers holds the governorship, while Republicans maintain control in the legislature; the gerrymander-enabled Republican legislature has proven to be an incredibly difficult obstacle for the agenda of a governor who was just reelected statewide. Republicans hold two-thirds of the state Senate and nearly two-thirds of the state Assembly, even while Democrats won the governor, secretary of state, and attorney general races in 2022.
The court is set to hear major cases, including a lawsuit from Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul against Wisconsin’s abortion ban that was activated after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The court is also expected to rule on the heavily gerrymandered maps that have kept conservatives in control of the swing state since 2010. (Bear in mind, in 2016, Trump won the state by just about 23,000 votes; in 2020, Biden won by some 20,000 votes himself.)
The court will also hold a crucial role in the 2024 elections given Wisconsin’s swing state status, especially so if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. While the court has largely ruled in favor of conservatives on contentious questions (like banning absentee ballot drop boxes or slashing public sector union power), it narrowly ruled 4–3 to reject a Trump lawsuit that sought to overturn his 2020 loss in the state. Basic democracy narrowly survived in 2020; there’s no guarantee it would fare as well in 2024.