When the votes were finally tallied Monday, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, despite the backing of the president, lost to Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky in the April 7 election. With 95% of the vote reported, Decision Desk HQ showed Karofsky leading Kelly 54% to 46%.
“Obviously I had hoped my service would continue for another decade, but tonight’s results make clear that God has a different plan for my future,” Kelly said in a statement to supporters. “I congratulate Judge Karofsky and wish her well as she assumes the responsibilities of this important office.”
The end came quickly on Monday after counting began at 4:00 PM. RightWisconsin called the election for Karofsky in an email to subscribers at 6:17 PM.
Kelly, appointed by former Governor Scott Walker in 2016, becomes the first incumbent Supreme Court Justice to lose re-election since former Justice Louis Butler lost to Justice Michael Gableman in the 2008 election. Karofsky begins a ten-year term August 1.
Kelly’s loss means the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court changes from 5-2 to 4-3. The next Supreme Court Justice up for re-election is Chief Justice Patience “Pat” Roggensack, a conservative, in 2023.
Despite the rarity of incumbents losing in Wisconsin Supreme Court races, Kelly was seen as vulnerable because of the timing of the election. Wisconsin’s “non-partisan” Spring election coincided with the Democratic Presidential Primary. While the Democratic nomination was basically decided by Election Day, Democratic turnout was spurred by early voting when the Democratic Presidential Primary was still competitive. Democratic turnout for Karofsky was also boosted by races for Milwaukee County Executive and Milwaukee Mayor.
Making the election more complicated for Kelly, Republicans did not have a competitive presidential primary when they did not allow any GOP opponents of President Donald Trump to appear on the ballot. However, Trump did publicly endorse Kelly right after the GOP decision.
Wisconsin’s Republicans took a big gamble in the Supreme Court race by pushing ahead with the election during the “safer-at-home” orders by Democratic Governor Tony Evers. Evers repeatedly stated his preference for the election to go on as planned. However, Evers flip-flopped at the last minute and tried to force an all “mail in” election, but was Evers’ request was rejected by legislative Republicans. Evers then issued an executive order to postpone the election, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled Evers 4-2, with the conservative justices voting against Evers. Kelly did not participate in the decision.
In a statement to supporters, Karofsky commented on having an election in the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic.
“Although we were successful in this race, the circumstances under which this election was conducted was unacceptable, and raise serious concerns for our democracy,” Karofsky said. “Nobody in this state or this country should have been forced to choose between their safety and participating in an election.”
Prior to Election Day Republicans had hoped that higher-that-expected absentee ballot returns, due to Coronavirus fears, from more conservative areas would be enough to offset the higher-than-normal Democratic turnout for the presidential primary.
Instead, Democratic turnout even in Republican areas was enough to carry Karofsky to victory.