With two weeks to go before Wisconsin’s Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary for state Supreme Court, progressives are launching an expensive campaign to stop conservative Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow from securing one of the two spots in the April 4 general election. A Better Wisconsin Together, an affiliate of the liberal advocacy network ProgressNow, seems to very much believe that former Justice Daniel Kelly would be the easier conservative to defeat in the spring contest to determine control of the court, which is why it's trying to convince the right-wing base to reject Dorow later this month.
The group just began spending $720,000 on a new TV ad accusing Dorow of having “a long history of keeping criminals, even sexual predators, out of prison,” flipping the script on an attack more often leveled by Republicans against Democrats. The narrator continues, “As a judge, Dorow lets criminals off so often, a fellow judge questioned her soft treatment of convicted criminals. She even gave a convicted domestic abuser two days to report to prison—time he used to violently assault his own family members.”
Kelly is not mentioned, though on-screen text features a quote from one of his supporters, Appeals Court Judge Shelley Grogan, saying of Dorow, “Look at [her] sentencing in cases where she did not invite the cameras into the courtroom.” The offensive comes at the same time that Jodi Habush Sinykin, who is the only Democrat running in a special election to flip a crucial GOP-held seat in the Wisconsin Senate that will also take place on April 4, is likewise running ads in an effort to pick her opponent.
So why might A Better Wisconsin Together believe that Dorow would be a stronger candidate than Kelly? While most judges have little name recognition outside the courthouse, Dorow attracted unusual attention last year when she presided over a high-profile trial that saw a man named Darrell Brooks sentenced to life in prison for killing six people at the 2021 Waukesha Christmas parade. (One admirer even dressed up as Dorow for Halloween.) Kelly, by contrast, lost re-election by a wide 55-45 margin in 2020 against liberal Judge Jill Karofsky.
The primary ballot also includes a pair of liberals, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, though Protasiewicz is the only one of the two who is airing TV ads. Protasiewicz, whose statewide media buy now stands at $1 million, also has a new ad where the cast tries and fails to pronounce her last name before the narrator declares, “You don’t need to know how to say Pro-tuh-say-witz to know that Judge Janet believes in abortion rights, fairness, and public safety.” Dorow has also been running spots focused on the parade trial, while a super PAC funded by megadonors Dick and Liz Uihlein is spending $500,000 on pro-Kelly TV ads.
Protasiewicz also picked up an endorsement on Tuesday from one of her would-be colleagues on the seven-member Supreme Court, Ann Walsh Bradley, who joins fellow Justice Rebecca Dallet in her corner. Retiring incumbent Patience Roggensack, the conservative all four of candidates are trying to replace, is for Dorow, while Rebecca Bradley is backing Kelly.
The justices who haven’t taken sides yet are Karofsky and the two remaining conservatives, Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Brian Hagedorn, though we’re pretty sure none of the candidates want the latter’s backing. Kelly himself cited Hagedorn’s occasional departures from his fellow conservatives last week as the reason he wouldn’t commit to backing Dorow in a general election. Kelly, who supported Hagedorn’s victorious 2019 bid, explained, “I had to apologize to countless, hundreds of people, and I won't be put in that position again … I don't want to go to the people again and say I endorse a candidate when I don't know what that candidate will do.”
Dorow, by contrast, pledged to back Kelly if he beats her this month, arguing, “I'm not going to take the chance to take someone out so that the left can win this election.” It’s possible, though, that both Kelly and Dorow will advance to April and lock progressives out of the general election―or that neither conservative will make it to the next round.
Help progressives flip this seat and take control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court! Donate $9 to Daily Kos-endorsed Judge Janet Protaseiwicz today!