Janet Protasiewciz’s backers include supporters of reproductive freedom, labor unions, and pro-democracy organizations. Dan Kelly’s campaign is being supported by right-wing billionaires, election deniers, and anti-abortion rights groups.
To say there’s a lot on the line in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election on April 4 would be an understatement. The future of reproductive freedom, democracy, workers’ rights, and so much more could hinge on the outcome of the race between liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz and right-wing judge Dan Kelly.
The stakes of the race have drawn national attention and a record amount of spending in the race, with more than $30 million being spent in TV, radio, and digital advertising, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Where is all that attention and money coming from, though? And who’s backing each of the candidates?
Let’s find out:
Protasiewicz has earned endorsements from a slew of Wisconsin lawmakers, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Gwen Moore, attorneys, judges, and community leaders. She’s also been endorsed by more than a dozen labor unions, multiple pro-democracy organizations, human rights organizations, environmental groups, and several groups that advocate for women’s reproductive freedom.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s endorsements include Wisconsin’s three leading anti-abortion rights groups, the National Rifle Association, and two police unions.
Kelly’s other supporters include:
- Matthew Trewhella, a Brookfield pastor who called the murder of an abortion provider “justifiable homicide,” advocated for the creation of anti-abortion-focused militia, and compared coronavirus pandemic-related mask requirements to the Holocaust.
- Scott Presler, a QAnon conspiracy theorist and election denier who tried to help overturn the 2020 election and was on the grounds of the US Capitol on Jan. 6. Presler, a Virginia native, has spent a month in Wisconsin campaigning for Kelly, who this week posted a video of the two men together on Twitter.
- Charlie Kirk, the leader of the conservative group Turning Point USA, who spread lies about the 2020 election and has made racist remarks.
Donations and Spending
Protasiewicz’s campaign has raised a substantial sum of money from donors both big and small. As a result, her campaign has booked more than $10 million in ads. In contrast, Kelly’s campaign has spent less than $500,000 on ads. However, his message is still getting out there.
Kelly’s campaign has been propped up by a coalition of anti-abortion groups, far-right billionaires, and corporate interests.
The anti-abortion political action committee (PAC) Women Speak Out, has already spent $550,000 supporting Kelly, with $2 million more on the way. The PAC is largely bankrolled by the Restoration PAC, which is primarily funded by billionaire Dick Uihlein.
But Women Speak Out also counts Leonard Leo as one of its benefactors. Leo, a conservative attorney and the former executive director of the Federalist Society, is one of the men most responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade.
He now runs a network of “dark money” groups that have spent more than $500 million as they seek to overhaul every aspect of American society, from abortion to education to business, in order to make them radically conservative. One of Leo’s groups, the Judicial Crisis Network, has funneled millions of dollars to Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the anti-abortion group that operates the Women Speak Out PAC.
Leo has also personally donated $20,000, the maximum amount allowable by law, to Kelly, who previously served as the president of the Milwaukee Lawyer’s Chapter of the Federalist Society. Dick and Liz Uihlein and Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks and her daughter have also each donated $20,000 to Kelly’s campaign.
Uihlein has also directed millions of dollars to another pro-Kelly outside group, Fair Courts America. The group has used that money to book more than $4.4 million in ads to run by April 4. Through Restoration PAC, Uihlein has also funded the American Principles Project PAC, which has spent nearly $800,000 on ads boosting Kelly. Multiple misleading texts targeting the transgender community were sent to Wisconsin voters this week alongside anti-LGBTQ videos created by the American Principles Project PAC.
Uihlein and Hendricks are not the only right-wing billionaires supporting Kelly. As The Guardian reported, Florida billionaire John Childs and Texas billionaire Brett Hendrickson have also funded Restoration PAC.
More traditionally conservative big business groups are also getting involved to back Kelly.
The WMC issues Mobilization Council—the advocacy arm of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying organization—has committed more than $4 million to help Kelly. Some of those funds are being used to run a series of misleading ads attacking Protasiewicz. Americans for Prosperity, an extremely conservative big business group founded by the Koch brothers, has also spent nearly $400,000 backing Kelly.
To be sure, Protasiewicz has received outside support as well, and her campaign has received a $2.5 million donation from the state Democratic party. Due to that donation, Protasiewicz has said she would recuse herself from any cases that come before the court that involve the party.
A Better Wisconsin Together, a progressive political fund, is also spending several million dollars to support Protasiewicz. The group has a range of donors, but counts Dick Uihlein’s cousin, Lynde, as one of them. She’s donated $250,000 to the organization, which also received $500,000 from the left-wing organization, State Victory Action, which counts liberal billionaire Tom Steyer as one of its largest donors.
The Wisconsin Conservation Voters has announced $1.4 million in spending to back Protasiewicz. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is spending $500,000 to help elect Protasiewicz, while Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin has spent about $500,000 in outside spending to support her campaign and oppose Kelly’s, with another $500,000 promised.
The Project Democracy PAC also announced a six-figure spend to back Protasiewicz.
Several other organizations are spending money in the race as well, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which is running ads highlighting the candidates’ records on abortion rights, and the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a conservative group running misleading ads about Protasiewciz’s record on crime.
The liberal PAC Priorities USA is also spending about $140,000 on an ad campaign to encourage Wisconsinites to turn out and vote in the election.
If this all makes your head spin, we don’t blame you. And if you’re sick of all these ads, we don’t blame you for that either. But we think it’s important to know who’s supporting and funding the candidates.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Priorities USA’s ad campaign as being in support of Janet Protasiewicz. The group is not backing Protasiewicz, and its ad campaign is focused only on encouraging Wisconsinites to vote. The Wisconsin Conservation Voters donation is in support of Protasiewicz, not Kelly as erroneously written. We regret the errors.
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