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Daniel Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz
Daniel Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz. John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates agree to single debate

A March 21 debate is the only face-off the candidates have agreed to so far in the race that will determine ideological control of the court.


The two candidates in the closely watched race that will determine ideological control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court will face off in the only debate of the campaign on March 21, the campaigns confirmed Tuesday.

Daniel Kelly, the conservative candidate in the officially nonpartisan race, and Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate, will debate on March 21 in Madison. The televised debate is sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin and WISC-TV.

In a statement, the State Bar of Wisconsin said the debate will feature a “traditional” format “with opening statements, timed answers/rebuttals, and closing statements.”

At the moment, it’s the only face-to-face event the two candidates have both agreed to in the race that will determine political control of the court — and, with it, the future of many pivotal issues the court is likely to decide in the coming years, including abortion rights, elections and gerrymandering. 

Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who lost his seat in a 2020 election to liberal Jill Karofsky, has in recent days hit Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge who has received the endorsement of the Democratic abortion rights group Emily’s List, for not having agreed to more forums where both candidates will appear. Kelly’s campaign has said he has confirmed participation in 10 debates or forums.

One such event is a March 14 luncheon hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club, and the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. Event organizers said they’d invited both candidates, but that only Kelly had agreed to participate. Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for the Protasiewicz campaign, confirmed to NBC News that Protasiewicz would not participate, citing a scheduling conflict.

Roecker also confirmed that Protasiewicz had been invited to a March 24 debate hosted by PBS Wisconsin but had not yet confirmed her participation. Kelly, in a press release, said he’d confirmed his participation in that event.

The winner of the April 4 election will be elected to a 10-year term.

The contest has already become the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history. Protasiewicz and groups supporting her have so far heavily outspent Kelly and groups supporting him.

Although the court and its members are technically nonpartisan, conservatives hold a 4-3 majority. But with conservative Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, that majority hangs in the balance. There has not been a liberal majority on the court in 15 years, and Democrats see the election as a prime opportunity to change that balance.