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Wisconsin voters are deciding who they want to control the state Supreme Court

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wisconsin voters decide today who they want to control the state Supreme Court. There are seven justices on that court. They vote on big cases the way the U.S. Supreme Court does. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, they are ideologically divided in Wisconsin. And the election of one seat today decides who gets to be the referee in one of the big presidential swing states. Wisconsin Public Radio's political reporter Shawn Johnson is covering this. Shawn, good morning.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So is this essentially a battle between Republicans and Democrats then?

JOHNSON: So technically, no. These are officially nonpartisan seats, but they are very partisan. On the Democratic side, you have Milwaukee County Judge Protasiewicz. She's been very outspoken about her personal beliefs in this campaign. On the Republican side, you have former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. He has shared less about himself, says he wants to be a boring justice on the court. But his Republican resume is very long.

INSKEEP: And we have three liberals, three conservatives and this one seat open in the middle. What are the big issues that this judge could be the swing vote on?

JOHNSON: At the top of the list, I think, is abortion. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, Wisconsin's pre-Civil War abortion ban went back into effect. If Protasiewicz wins, the court could also hear a case on redistricting that challenges the state's Republican-drawn legislative and congressional maps.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

JOHNSON: And, of course, whoever's in control of this court will hear lawsuits about the 2024 election when those are filed.

INSKEEP: I think we're getting a picture of why this would be the most expensive state Supreme Court anywhere in the country on record. How much are we talking about at this point?

JOHNSON: So the old record for a state Supreme Court race anywhere was $15 million. That was set in Illinois in 2004, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Brennan says about 29 million has now been spent so far in Wisconsin's race on advertising. Another review of overall spending by the website WisPolitics pegs it at 45 million. So you're looking at two or three times the old record already.

INSKEEP: Wow.

JOHNSON: As far as candidate fundraising goes, Protasiewicz has far outpaced Kelly, with a big assist from the state Democratic Party. But in the closing days of the race, conservative money from outside groups has come in big for Kelly and closed that gap. And those conservative ads have almost all been on the issue of crime, attacking Protasiewicz for sentences she handed down as the Milwaukee County judge.

INSKEEP: Shawn, I've heard a critique of judicial elections in the past, essentially that people never really know the candidates. Voters are not that engaged. And a very small group of people or a political faction can get their people in. Is that what's happening here?

JOHNSON: I think it's safe to say at this point in the race that both sides now realize the importance of this campaign and what's at stake. Conservative activist Bob Dohnal organized a recent get-out-the-vote party for Kelly. He said that if Protasiewicz wins, the court could overturn everything from union laws to voting laws, to gun laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB DOHNAL: We know that this election is really, really key. There are so many things up for grabs that the courts can throw out.

JOHNSON: And on the Democratic side, they view this court race as a chance to finally move Wisconsin's politics to the left. Protasiewicz supporters like Alexandria Delcourt are also highly motivated by the abortion issue.

ALEXANDRIA DELCOURT: It's really important for me to have a candidate that is a champion for reproductive rights, reproductive freedom, just because there are so many places now where that's being stripped away so violently.

JOHNSON: And you can't really overstate the importance of this race for Wisconsin. A Kelly win would preserve the court's conservative majority probably for another couple of years. A Protasiewicz win would give liberals a majority in the court for the first time in 15 years.

INSKEEP: Shawn Johnson of Wisconsin Public Radio. Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.