By Ethan Duran
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly received endorsements from both pro-gun and anti-abortion groups, with his latest appearance in a video conference alongside Pastor Matthew Trewhella, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation inquired in connection to the fatal shooting of an abortion doctor in 1994.
Kelly on Wednesday night appeared in a video conference at the same event Trewhella spoke at, a Facebook post from Sons and Daughters of Liberty-Wisconsin showed. The meeting was first reported by Adam Kelnhofer of WisPolitics.com.
Kelly maintained he would resist influence from special interest groups and follow the rule of law, but several groups including the National Rifle Association as well as some anti-abortion groups have formally endorsed the candidate for his past track record with supporting guns and prohibiting abortion.
A spokesperson for Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who Kelly is running against, said it was “not surprising” the candidate would appear next to an extreme figure. Kelly has criticized Protasiewicz in the past for being open about her political beliefs.
“It’s not surprising that (Kelly) would appear alongside somebody who’s that extreme. We’ve seen that event and he’s been appearing frequently across the state with someone who endorsed the (Jan. 6) insurrection and Stop the Steal. Dan Kelly has no hesitation when it comes to appearing alongside some extreme figures. That tells you a lot about how he approaches the issues and what kind of justice he will be in the court,” a spokesperson for the Protasiewicz campaign said.
The April 4 election is less than two weeks away and Kelly is facing Protasiewicz for an open swing seat on the State Supreme Court. Stakes are high as the court split may be faced with the outcome of a national election again, as Wisconsin will again become a battleground state for the 2024 presidential election.
Kelly has been adamant about not discussing his political views on issues that might come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He has also criticized his opponent Protasiewicz for being open about her personal opinions.
Scott Jones, the state director for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said the group’s endorsement reflected Kelly’s support for the Second Amendment and his record on guns while serving as a State Supreme Court justice, a letter shared with Wisconsin Law Journal showed.
“On behalf of NRA members in Wisconsin, I am pleased to announce your NRA endorsement for the 2023 Wisconsin Judicial Election. This endorsement is a reflection of your steadfast support of the Second Amendment and excellent record on firearm-related issues during your tenure as Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice,” according to Jones’ letter.
An NRA spokesperson in Virginia issued a statement about Kelly Tuesday.
“Justice Daniel Kelly has a proven record of supporting the Second Amendment and interpreting the constitution the way the Founding Fathers intended. In his time on the bench, he has remained steadfast in his firearm-related rulings. His opponent is the opposite. The NRA is confident that he will protect the laws of Wisconsin and rule on behalf of the Constitution.”
The NRA previously praised Kelly’s majority opinion for Wisconsin Carry, Inc. V. City of Madison which allowed for the concealed carry of firearms on city buses.
“Our members will interpret your endorsement as being a strong defender of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” according to the letter.
Protasiewiz’s campaign responded.
“Dan Kelly is an extremist who will stop at nothing further his far-right political agenda. He’s sought and secured the support of groups who share his ultra-radical beliefs, including that abortion should be illegal in all cases without any exceptions. The truth is, Dan Kelly is a partisan operative who always ruled in favor of his right-wing special interests. Wisconsinites deserve fairness from their supreme court and a justice who will protect their rights, not someone who will bring partisanship and corruption to the bench,” a spokesperson said.
In a deleted blog post, Kelly noted the Second Amendment was about having a well-regulated militia and not about hunting or personal defense.
“Neither side is eager to engage the other on what this constitutional provision actually means,” Kelly wrote in a deleted blog post called ‘Our Curiously Disjointed Gun Debate.’
Kelly openly blogged over the years about his stance on abortion, remarking that the procedure “takes the life of an unborn child.”
A spokesperson for Protasiewicz’s campaign said pro-life group Wisconsin Right to Life’s (RTL) endorsement of Kelly “should be very concerning.” The group’s website recently changed its stated policy about candidates it endorsed.
After the primary election in February, RTL said its political action committee endorsed candidates who pledge to champion pro-life values. The group added a clause for judicial elections and said its political action committee supports candidates whose philosophies and values fit with RTL.
“The Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee endorses candidates who have pledged to champion pro-life values and stand with Wisconsin Right to Life’s legislative strategy. In judicial elections, the Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee endorses candidates whose judicial philosophies and values fit with those of Wisconsin Right to Life,” according to RTL’s website.
Before February’s primary election, RTL’s statement was shorter and limited to candidates who stand with the group’s legislative strategy.
“The Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee endorses candidates who have pledged to champion pro-life values and stand with Wisconsin Right to Life’s legislative strategy,” RTL’s website said before Feb. 21 via the Wayback Machine.
Wisconsin Right to Life announced in January their endorsements for Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow for their role to “interpret laws and apply them as written.” Dorow didn’t make it past the election in February.
“Wisconsin Right to Life is confident that if elected, both Justice Kelly and Judge Dorow would be strong defenders of the Constitution, and would serve our state fairly and conservatively as Supreme Court Justices. We appreciate their integrity, honesty, and shared belief that the role of the judiciary is not to legislate, but to interpret laws and apply them as written. Other candidates in this race have already shown themselves to be mouthpieces for the pro-abortion agenda, and we are not confident that they will rule with impartiality in upcoming cases,” Gracie Skogman, the Wisconsin Right to Life legislative and PAC director, said in a statement.
Pro-Life Wisconsin, one of Kelly’s endorsements, stated on their website, “We proudly endorse these candidates who recognize the personhood of the preborn baby and hold the principled and compassionate no-exceptions pro-life position. … Because we insist on this high standard, more and more candidates for elected for office are 100% pro-life.”
Pro-Life Wisconsin State Director Dan Miller declined to comment when Wisconsin Law Journal called him Tuesday. Kelly’s campaign didn’t respond to request for comment at the time of publication.
When asked about RTL’s endorsement for Kelly, Skogman said judicial candidates are meant to rule on the laws being challenged that are brought before them.
“Wisconsin Right to Life’s PAC Committee takes many things into consideration when endorsing candidates. Judicial candidates are not in the line of work to make legislation from the bench but instead are meant to rule on the laws being challenged that are brought before them. Wisconsin Right to Life and our PAC does not support judicial activism. If Justice Kelly believes in judicial activism, then he would not receive our endorsement,” Skogman said.