Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate delivers fiery, bitter concession speech: 'This does not end well'

The liberal judge won the high-stakes race, flipping the ideological balance.

April 5, 2023, 2:21 PM

Wisconsin's high-stakes Supreme Court race culminated Tuesday in a victory for the liberal candidate and a fiery, bitter concession speech by the conservative contender that underscored the acrimony by the end of their contest -- the most expensive such election in history.

Dan Kelly, a former justice on the high court who was running for a return, lambasted Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz for discussing her personal views on policies and issues expected to come before the state Supreme Court, including her support for abortion rights and criticism of Republican-drawn legislative maps.

"This didn't turn out the way that we were looking for, and I think there are a couple of reasons for it and I think we need to address them head on. And it brings me no joy to say this. I wish that in a circumstance like this I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent. But I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede," Kelly said Tuesday night.

"This was the most deeply deceitful, dishonorable, despicable campaign I have ever seen run for the courts," he said. "It was truly beneath contempt. Now I say this not because we did not prevail -- I do not say this because of the rancid slanders that were launched against me, although that was bad enough. But that is not my concern. My concern is the damage done to the institution of the courts."

The rhetoric reflected the repercussions of the race, with Protasiewicz's win flipping the court from a 4-3 conservative majority to one that liberals will control by a 4-3 margin until at least 2025. It's the first time liberal-aligned judges will be in the majority in 15 years.

Among the issues the court is anticipated to take up are an 1849 law that bans nearly all abortions and challenge to the legislative maps, which Republicans drew after 2010 and which are widely seen as gerrymandered despite Wisconsin's status as a swing state.

Republicans had knocked Protasiewicz throughout the campaign for discussing her beliefs on issues she could soon decide on, though it appears the attacks were insufficient to prevent Kelly's 11-point loss, which is almost identical to his margin of defeat when he lost his seat on the court in 2020.

Kelly had stayed away from commenting as directly on those issues, but he won endorsements from anti-abortion groups and previously worked for the state GOP in private practice.

Protasiewicz's campaign, meanwhile, said it was important to communicate with voters what her views are and rejected the premise that such comments forecasted how she would rule form the bench.

"She's been very clear that these are her personal values: She believes in democracy, she believes in access to health care. But that's not saying how she's going to vote on these if they're before the court. We have no idea of knowing who will bring those challenges to the court, what will be made," campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker told ABC News on Monday.

"She has made no promises to rule one way or the other on any case before the court. But I think part of this as she's here on the campaign trail is that voters expect to know some of the values of who they're voting for," Roecker said then. "This is a big election. There's a lot at stake."

Still, Kelly pulled no punches, casting his defeat in nearly apocalyptic terms for his state's future.

"I respect the decision that the people of Wisconsin have made. But I think this does not end well. Now as I look forward, I hope, I hope it does end well. This has been a beautiful, beautiful life here in Wisconsin with all of you," he said Tuesday. "And I wish, Wisconsin, the best of luck because I think it's going to need it."