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Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates debate as voting begins

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Wisconsin voters had a chance to cast ballots in person starting Tuesday in the state's high-stakes Supreme Court race, the same day the two candidates were meeting for their first and only debate two weeks before election day.

Both candidates were urging their supporters to vote early during the period that runs through April 2. Midday on Tuesday, Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz were debating in a race to decide majority control of the court with abortion access, legislative redistricting, voting rights and other issues at stake.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. Whoever wins the April 4 election for a seat vacated by the retirement of a conservative justice will determine majority control of the court for at least the next two years, including leading up to the 2024 presidential election.

Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, is running as a staunch supporter of abortion rights. Wisconsin's ban on nearly all abortions, which was enacted in 1849 — a year after statehood, is being challenged in court. The case is likely to be decided by the state Supreme Court later this year or next.

Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, has long ties to the Republican Party, having previously worked for Republicans, including advising fake electors who met in 2020 to try and cast the state's electoral votes for Donald Trump even though he lost.

Kelly was endorsed by Trump in 2020. This year, Kelly has the backing of Scott Presler, a Virginia native who planned several “stop the steal” rallies and was on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was in Wisconsin in March helping to raise money and support for Kelly through personal appearances on on conservative talk radio.

Protasiewicz's endorsements include Hillary Clinton and EMILY’s List, which works nationwide to elect Democratic abortion rights supporters.

Protasiewicz and her allies have largely attacked Kelly over abortion, noting his support by the state's three largest anti-abortion groups and his past work for Wisconsin Right to Life. Kelly has not said how he would rule on the abortion law should it reach the court, but he did write in a previous blog post that everyone knows the procedure “takes the life of an unborn child.”

Kelly has accused Protasiewicz of going too far and essentially of committing to voting to overturn the state’s 1849 abortion ban, should the lawsuit seeking to overturn the law come before the court as expected. Protasiewicz has not said how she would rule on that or any other specific case.

Kelly and his allies have largely focused on Protasiewicz's record as a judge, arguing that she's handed down light sentences to violent offenders.

The contest has already broken national spending records for a Supreme Court race, with at least $20 million spent by both sides to date. WisPolitics.com has been the total spent on the race at north of $30 million as of last week. That beats $15.2 million spent on an Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004.

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