Following the 2020 Presidential election, Wisconsin was the only state in the country whose Supreme Court held a hearing on election challenges filed by Donald Trump. Joe Biden had won the state by nearly twenty-one thousand votes; Trump’s lawyer, Jim Troupis, asked for the results from the state’s two most populous and most Democratic counties to be thrown out, mainly because ballots had been cast using drop boxes. Though drop boxes had been used in counties across the state, and they had not been subject to legal challenge prior to the election, the Court seriously entertained the argument, ultimately ruling 4–3 to let the results stand. (Hagedorn again broke with his fellow-conservatives, but on procedural grounds—he wrote that the case had been brought too late.) Two years later, the Court outlawed drop boxes. In that case, Rebecca Bradley, writing for the majority, compared Wisconsin’s 2020 contest to elections conducted by Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Il, and other despots. “Throughout history, tyrants have claimed electoral victory via elections conducted in violation of governing law,” she wrote. “For example, Saddam Hussein was reportedly elected in 2002 by a unanimous vote of all eligible voters in Iraq.”
In the wake of the Dobbs decision, the outcome of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race is nearly certain to decide the future of abortion access in the state, which is currently being governed by an 1849 law that criminalizes abortion except to save the life of the mother. Under this law, physicians who perform an abortion can be imprisoned for up to six years and stripped of their medical licenses. Protasiewicz, the first judicial candidate in the country to be endorsed by emily’s List, is outspoken about her pro-choice views. Kelly has been endorsed by the state’s major anti-abortion groups and is pro-life.
Last month, Walker, the former governor, told National Review that “everything” is on the line in this election. “This is their chance to undo everything that we’ve done over the past dozen years,” he said. Wisconsin is arguably the country’s most pivotal swing state, so the election has national implications, too. “The United States has this unique-in-the-world system where an individual state can tip the Presidential election, because of the Electoral College,” Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said. “For better or worse, Wisconsin seems permanently poised right on the fulcrum. That means that tiny shifts and laws in this one small Midwestern state can ripple out to affect the whole future of American democracy.”
Last month, a few dozen citizens crammed into a small community room in the Black River Falls library for a lunchtime meet and greet with Protasiewicz. Volunteers brought homemade chili and corn bread. Protasiewicz schmoozed energetically with the crowd, which was largely older and white, with a smattering of attendees from the Ho-Chunk Nation, including its President, Marlon WhiteEagle. Dressed in a white leopard-print jacket, Protasiewicz highlighted the most prominent issues of her campaign: gerrymandering (she was unapologetic about having called the maps “rigged”), abortion (“Can you imagine what medical science was like in 1849?”), and the Court’s role in the 2024 Presidential election (“By one vote, our 2020 election in the state of Wisconsin managed to stand”).
Protasiewicz grew up in a Polish family on the south side of Milwaukee. Her mother taught at a Catholic school and her stepfather at a public one. Her stepfather was in a union and made much more money than her mother did. The contrast gave Protasiewicz an abiding appreciation for the labor movement. “I started to learn about the value of being represented by a union, what they do to give you—quite frankly—a living wage,” she told me. She went to Marquette University for law school, supporting herself with odd jobs—running the Milwaukee office of the League of Women Voters, writing concert reviews for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (“Although Seals did not move with energy,” she wrote of Son Seals, a blues guitarist, “an undercurrent of vitality was evident.”) After law school, she spent twenty-five years at the Milwaukee County D.A.’s office, where she worked on a variety of cases, including domestic abuse, armed robbery, and the termination of parental rights.
In 2011, the state’s Supreme Court, overruling a lower court’s order, upheld Act 10, Walker’s signature anti-labor law, which all but eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin. (The bitter deliberations included accusations that David Prosser, one of the Court’s conservative justices, entered the chambers of his liberal colleague, Ann Walsh Bradley, and put her in a choke hold; Prosser denied choking her, though he testified that he could feel the “warmth” of Bradley’s neck in his hands.) Protasiewicz participated in protests against Act 10, which also slashed the state’s contribution to workers’ health care and pensions, resulting in an average take-home pay cut of nearly nine per cent. “I was single then, and scraping to get by,” Protasiewicz, who was a member of a public-employee union for state prosecutors, told me. (Her support for labor has helped secure endorsements from many of the major unions in the state.)
Democrats have won fourteen of the past seventeen statewide elections in Wisconsin, and that success may have something to do with voters like Irv Caldwell, who was listening intently at the Black River Falls meet and greet. Caldwell, a seventy-four-year-old retired truck driver, has voted for both Democrats and Republicans. For the past decade, he’s felt that the state Republican Party has pitted Wisconsin’s electorate against itself. “Walker has really done a number on us,” he said. “It never used to be such a divide.” He is particularly concerned about gerrymandering. “You could straighten out a whole lot of things without that,” he said, noting that Black River Falls had a Democratic state senator until the town was moved into a different district last year. He’s also worried about abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, because he has two daughters, the younger of whom is gay. “I see so much of her girlfriend—I know a lot of their friends—and we’re like family,” Caldwell said. (Kelly, a long-standing critic of same-sex marriage, wrote, in 2014, that it “will eventually rob the institution of marriage of any discernible meaning.”)
Caldwell added that he wasn’t planning to get involved in the election, “besides shooting my mouth off.” On his way out, though, I saw him grab a Protasiewicz yard sign.
Green Bay, a working-class city with a large Catholic population, has long been a flash point in the battle over abortion. Days before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an ob-gyn who lives in Green Bay, had already stopped performing abortions. “There’s a law in Wisconsin that, even with a medication abortion, there’s a twenty-four-hour waiting period between your first visit and getting the medication,” she said. “Knowing that people were travelling hours just to get there, we didn’t want them to be stuck.” The morning that Dobbs came down, Lyerly burst into tears. “We knew it was going to happen, but when it did it felt like half of you just disappeared,” she told me.
Lyerly, who has long brown hair and a disarming smile, was born and raised near Charlesburg, a hamlet south of Green Bay that was named after her great-great-grandfather. (It was “a supper club and a church, pretty much,” she said.) She was the first in her family to go to college. Afterward, she bounced around, working at an abortion clinic in Atlanta, a doctor’s office on an Alaskan island, and a rural hospital in north Georgia, where she did intake for impoverished patients. “Seeing people who were coming out of the mountains, who didn’t have running water and were suffering from uncontrolled diabetes—that fuelled me and continues to fuel me,” she said. She decided to apply to medical school and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where, as a thirty-two-year-old mother, she was the oldest student in her class.
In 2012, an anti-abortion activist firebombed a Planned Parenthood clinic outside Appleton. The following year, the only abortion clinic in Green Bay shut down. By the time that the Dobbs ruling was issued, there were just four abortion clinics left in the state: two in Milwaukee, one in Madison, and one in Sheboygan, where Lyerly had been commuting twice a week. Now she’s stopped working in Wisconsin altogether. “I can’t look my patients in the eyes and say, ‘I know exactly what to do for you, but I can’t, because the state won’t let me,’ ” she said. (She currently practices out of two hospitals in rural Minnesota.)
Lyerly is one of three doctors who joined a lawsuit brought by Josh Kaul, Wisconsin’s attorney general, challenging the state’s 1849 abortion law, which was written before germs were known to cause disease. (The lawsuit claims that subsequent laws regulating abortion supersede the earlier ban.) Governor Evers, who, the day after Dobbs, said that women in Wisconsin have become “second-class citizens,” called two special sessions of the legislature to address the 1849 law—first to repeal it, then to authorize a voter referendum—but both times the legislature gavelled in and immediately gavelled out. He has offered clemency to doctors who perform abortions, but, because the law has a six-year statute of limitations, they could be prosecuted after he leaves office. No other state is operating under a more extreme abortion ban.
“Dobbs has affected physicians’ judgment of these situations,” Abigail Cutler, an ob-gyn based at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals, in Madison, said. “They’re thinking twice.” Cutler is concerned that the law could hurt the ob-gyn residency at the University of Wisconsin’s medical school. “Abortion is not something that just lives out in the satellite over here,” she said. “It is deeply integrated into ob-gyn care. Miscarriage management, fertility management, contraception—abortion can be a part of each.” Post-Dobbs, Cutler has performed life-saving abortions, but operating within that narrow legal exception is fraught with fear. She noted that pregnancy exacerbates conditions like cervical cancer and chronic kidney disease: “How close does someone have to be to that line of death in order for it to be considered saving their life?”