There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Former Justice Dan Kelly took an absolute shellacking in the state Supreme Court race.
Kelly’s defeat will have enormous consequences for the people of Wisconsin. Liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz is expected to help a new liberal majority unravel a generation of conservative reforms.
It’s hard not to be demoralized by the massive margin. However, when you put the campaign debris under the microscope, it becomes clear that the loss was, at least partly, the result of multiple bad decisions by the candidate.
There is one big exception to that, and it’s a really big one: Abortion. It’s possible that no conservative candidate could have withstood the tsunami of women and younger voters who came out to the polls because they have been indoctrinated into believing that abortion is a “right.” A decade of liberal indoctrination in public schools, universities, and the news media, has started to bear fruit for the left.
The continued erosion of Republican support in the populous WOW counties that surround Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) is severely problematic. Some of this erosion is due to Trump, some of it is due to migration, some of it is due to county party weaknesses, and a lot of it was due to abortion. Simply put, Republicans had a problem with women and the young.
Dan Kelly has now cost conservatives TWO court seats. Think about that for a minute.
Here are 11 things that went wrong with the Dan Kelly campaign:
1. Abortion Obviously
Republicans never found a coherent message on abortion. They could have exposed Protasiewicz’s extremism on the topic, but it’s possible that wouldn’t have mattered, either.
Instead, they dodged it. Democrats succeeded in making abortion the overriding narrative of the campaign. Protasiewicz threw judicial ethics out the window and made it clear to pro-abortion voters that she was their choice. This wasn’t ethical, but it was effective.
In contrast, Kelly tried to stay above the fray and not take a position on abortion during the campaign, but voters figured out he was pro-life anyway, in part due to his endorsements.
Abortion mattered more in this race than in the governor’s and attorney general’s races because the law is likely to come before the court.
2. Kelly Refused Republican Party cash
We’re told that Kelly refused to take large cash transfers from the state Republican Party. Apparently, he did not want to seem like a partisan or a politician.
He did take thousands of dollars in in-kind donations from the party (reimbursements for services), and he ran around the state appearing at GOP Lincoln Days and other events. But Protasiewicz took millions from the state Democratic Party, and Kelly refused to follow suit.
This is called the “Walker loophole,” in the words of our talk radio friend, Dan O’Donnell, whereby state parties can now funnel large amounts of money from outside donors to candidates.
Here’s the problem with Kelly’s refusal to take such cash transfers. The money went through third-party groups instead. However, third-party groups pay more for advertisements than candidates do, so they got less bang for their buck. They are also more limited in the types of ads they can run in some cases, making it harder for some to run ads on Protasiewicz’s alleged personal problems.
Kelly handicapped himself. He turned the campaign into an esoteric exercise about constitutional powers rather than doing what was needed to win.
3. Crime Wasn’t Enough
Both the campaign and 3rd party groups focused on crime. We understand the rationale to a point. That’s how conservatives were elected to state Supreme Court races in the past. The problem was that this time, abortion dominated younger voters’ concerns.
Justices don’t sentence people. They decide on the constitutionality of laws and court decisions. However, they do preside over questions about criminal defendants’ rights and police powers. It’s not that we don’t think crime was important – we wrote a lot of the stories on Protasiewicz’s weak sentences – it’s that crime delivered only the first punch, and conservatives needed a second one.
We think that could have been on the economy; Protasiewicz said Scott Walker’s Act 10 was unconstitutional. However, Act 10 has saved taxpayers billions of dollars. As James Carville once famously said, “It’s the economy stupid.” Ads could have focused on people’s pocketbooks and reminded them how much their taxes will skyrocket due to a Protasiewicz victory. People are suffering from inflation, but Republican candidates keep ignoring their historic strength on fiscal issues.
Tim Michels didn’t advance a coherent economic message either.
Overall, campaigns/3rd parties also failed to send the message of real-world consequences – gun rights, school choice, taxes, and election reform, to name a few.
4. Failure to Get Protasiewicz’s Alleged Personal Issues to a Wider Audience
However, Kelly failed to mention the accusations in the only debate, he didn’t run ads on them, and the liberal media largely censored the stories. Some third-party groups have to keep their ads focused on policy issues for tax status purposes, which made it tougher for them to run ads on the topic than the candidate.
Kelly said on our podcast, Wisconsin Right Now – Uncensored, that he considered the accusations, which Protasiewicz’s campaign denied, “credible.” So it wasn’t that. We were told he didn’t want to seem like a politician and wanted to keep the discussion on judicial and constitutional questions.
The liberal media were twisting into pretzels to avoid covering the accusations. Kelly’s best chance to force them to cover the issue fairly was during the only debate between the candidates. The New York Times, Washington Post, and the state’s media were present. If they wouldn’t ask her the questions, he could have. But he didn’t even bring it up.
The bottom line: Kelly wouldn’t take the gloves off. While we respect him for his principles, he should have considered that before entering the most divisive, politically charged, and expensive court race in Wisconsin history.
Kelly’s campaign, and surrogate, Shelley Grogan, aggressively attacked Jennifer Dorow during the primary, but then Kelly and Grogan failed to attack Janet Protasiewicz as aggressively. Why?
Kelly was tougher on Protasiewicz in his quasi-concession speech than he was during the campaign. Again, why?
5. Kelly Had a Losing Track Record & Was Wrong for the Times
One could argue the race was lost in the primary. Kelly just wasn’t the right candidate for these times; Republicans need to woo back women upset about Trump and abortion, so they elected a guy Trump gave a shout-out to from a 2020 stage, and whose writings on incendiary social positions were easy to find. They elected a guy who reminds people of Trump.
They could have elected the WOW county female judge who was such a media star that people were putting her face on coffee mugs and who hadn’t weighed in on abortion publicly.
But no, some people didn’t want to do that. Kelly’s side mostly argued voters should pick him because he was the most reliably conservative; however, this was a terrible general election narrative due to Roe v. Wade.
There was a smear campaign against Jennifer Dorow. We saw the last-minute smear email; it went to county parties and churches throughout the state. It wasn’t from the Kelly campaign, but he didn’t do much, if anything, to repudiate it. It’s possible that Dorow would not have survived the abortion issue either, since her campaign mistakenly decided to accept pro-life endorsements, which would have been used to define her. It’s not the 1980s.
Kelly demonstrated once before that he could not win a race. He lost in 2020 by a massive margin. He didn’t explain what he would do differently to win this race. So why did Republicans select him?
Kelly, although a brilliant intellect, was very esoteric and had a difficult time connecting with voters. He’s not a natural politician. Kelly should have better told his story and background to connect with voters, as he did here with us.
Kelly actually performed worse in 2023 than he did in 2020. In 2020, he got 44.7% of the vote. In 2023, he got 44.5%.
6. Disappeared After the Primary
The Kelly campaign went dark after the primary for too long, just like Tim Michels did. Kelly spent money defeating Dorow and then was left with an empty tank on the front end of the general election. During those weeks, Kelly took a repeated pummeling from Protasiewicz on the air.
Politics 101: Whoever defines their opponent first, wins.
7. Exceptional Media Bias
The Wisconsin media are biased. They aggressively cover every utterance by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, but almost all ignored the racial slur and elder abuse accusations. They ignored the court case in which Protasiewicz, as a prosecutor, worked to strip twins from a black grandmother who had no history of abuse or neglect.
The media ran cover for Protasiewicz. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did get the two people to repeat the elder abuse allegations to them, essentially confirming the core of Wisconsin Right Now’s story.
But they refused to print the fact that a second source, Jon Ehr, also said he heard Protasiewicz use racial slurs, creating a false narrative that the allegations were only coming from a former stepson.
They essentially baited Protasiewicz into saying she might consider suing and then refused to tell readers her campaign walked that back within hours. This smacks of an attempt to frighten other media into not running the story – after all, she was thinking of suing! (until she wasn’t.)
The Wisconsin Law Journal turned the allegations into a deceptive hit piece on Wisconsin Right Now that contained factual errors and bizarrely relied on an unsourced, undated screenshot being tossed around Twitter by pro-Protasiewicz trolls.
The rest of the media, for the first time in history, decided that racial slurs and domestic abuse allegations aren’t worth reporting. They have apparently forgotten what reporters did to Dorow’s teenage son, African-American judge Everett Mitchell, Brett Kavanaugh, a host of folks caught up in “me too” controversies and more.
The media also dishonestly linked Kelly to support for the so-called “fake electors,” even though there was no evidence he had anything to do with them.
8. The State Party’s Lack of an Effective Fundraising & Turnout Operation
We think new state GOP chair Brian Schimming did everything he could. But he inherited a party with a turnout operation and fundraising system that were in shambles. That will take time to fix, and he ran out of it.
We heard stories about door walkers giving up on party lists because they were so inaccurate.
Democrats have mastered the fundraising and turn-out game, as the election results proved.
Love him or hate him, it’s time to face reality. The former president is toxic in some corners and has helped erode support in the WOW counties for the GOP.
At first, we thought Trump’s indictment might fuel some of his supporters to come out and vote for Kelly, but now we think it demoralized them. Trump is hoisted on his own petard; he’s tried to convince a swath of the electorate that it’s all rigged and their votes don’t matter. So why should they turn out then?
Some suburban women have soured on Trump badly. Kelly was not the candidate to get them back.
10. County Parties in Disarray
Various county parties were in disarray at various points in the campaign. Waukesha County’s focused on kicking respected, long-time, effective Republicans off its board. Dane County and Milwaukee County were in chaos.
11. Democrats Perfected Their Partisan Strategy, Throwing Out the Judicial Ethics Code
Democrats learned from Lisa Neubauer’s loss to Brian Hagedorn. They believed they did not signal to the liberal partisans where she stood politically. In contrast, the GOP base was riled up to turn out for Hagedorn by the perception he was facing anti-Christian bias. This time, Janet Protasiewicz ran a Supreme Court race as if it were a U.S. Senate campaign. To hell with the judicial ethics code, but it helped gin up the big national money.
If a Republican had run like this, the media would have written endless stories decrying partisan politics being injected into the race. Because it was a liberal, they gave her cover to do it, by writing endless stories implying that Kelly was just as bad. He wasn’t.
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