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The winner of Wisconsin's Supreme Court seat could shape abortion rights in the state


In Wisconsin, an election tomorrow could flip the ideological balance of the state's Supreme Court. And the newly elected justice is almost certain to decide a challenge to that state's abortion ban. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, there are people in both parties who say the race could also change the political trajectory of the state.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: During a recent Saturday night in Madison, people lined up down the street for an event aimed at turning out the Democratic vote. Races for Supreme Court in Wisconsin are officially nonpartisan, but that's not how it works in practice. This is a Democratic city, and the Democratic voters in this line are here to support Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. At the front of the line is Madison resident Ariel Hendrickson, who says the election boils down to two issues.

ARIEL HENDRICKSON: Abortion rights and making sure that gerrymandering does not get any worse in our state.

JOHNSON: Abortion has been a major issue here since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last summer because it reinstated Wisconsin's pre-Civil War abortion ban. And gerrymandering of the state's legislative districts has helped Republicans win big majorities in the legislature, cementing a conservative agenda for more than a decade. Sheila Hosseini of Madison says people understand the stakes of the race, which could flip the court from a conservative to a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years.

SHEILA HOSSEINI: I mean, I know people keep saying this, but this is probably one of the most important elections for Wisconsin, especially because reproductive rights are on the line.

JOHNSON: In swing-state Wisconsin, election after election, people are used to hearing that this campaign is the most important. But University of Wisconsin-Madison political science and law professor Howard Schweber says there's actually so much riding on Wisconsin's court race that this time it might be true.

HOWARD SCHWEBER: I have to agree. I think this election really does live up to its hype in the sense that the stakes are extraordinarily high across an extraordinarily broad range of issues.

JOHNSON: Money has poured into the race, doubling - and, by one estimate, tripling - the old national record for spending in a state Supreme Court race.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) You're all right.

JOHNSON: At a Republican get-out-the-vote party in the Milwaukee suburb of Hales Corners, organizers warn a long list of GOP accomplishments could get struck down if liberals win the court, including voting laws and gun laws. Longtime conservative activist Orville Seymer says former Republican Governor Scott Walker's signature law curbing union rights could also be in danger.

ORVILLE SEYMER: All those things - they don't appear on the ballot, but they really are on the ballot. People are voting on those issues. And the people here in this room, conservative people - they want to maintain that.

JOHNSON: Their candidate is Dan Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who was originally appointed by Walker in 2016. Kelly lost his last election in 2020. As a private lawyer, Kelly once defended Republicans' legislative maps. His recent clients included the Republican National Committee. But while everyone else is talking about these issues, Kelly notably isn't.


DAN KELLY: If I were to start talking about my political views, that would be no more relevant to this race than who I think the Packers' next quarterback ought to be.

JOHNSON: It's not that Kelly has never shared his views. About a decade ago, Kelly wrote in a blog that abortion took the life of a human being. He wrote a passage in a book comparing affirmative action to slavery. But Kelly says it's inappropriate for him to share his political views as a judicial candidate since a judge's job is applying the law.


KELLY: I am running to be the most boring Supreme Court justice in the history of the country 'cause the role of the court is not to be original. It's not to be innovative.

JOHNSON: Protasiewicz has no such hesitation when it comes to sharing her personal beliefs, particularly on abortion.


JANET PROTASIEWICZ: So I'll tell you this. I have been very, very forthright that my personal value is that women have a right to choose. Reproductive decisions belong to the person, right?

JOHNSON: And when it comes to talking about Wisconsin's Republican-drawn legislative districts, she says the maps are rigged.


PROTASIEWICZ: I would certainly welcome the opportunity to have a fresh look at our maps.

JOHNSON: For Democrats, in this moment, the race means everything. With a liberal majority on the court and new maps, their hope is that they could finally push the state's politics to the left like neighboring Minnesota and Michigan. They also describe this race in presidential terms because whichever side wins will have a majority on the court for the 2024 presidential race. That means they'll handle election lawsuits in Wisconsin, the swing state where each campaign feels a little more important than the last. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYKKE LI SONG, "LAST PIECE") 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.