Billionaires George Soros, J.B. Pritzker and the Uihleins pour millions into Wisconsin's Supreme Court race in final weeks

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MADISON - With a week before the election for the state Supreme Court, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz continues to eclipse her conservative opponent Dan Kelly in fundraising — this time with the help of three out-of-state billionaires who have each given $1 million to the state Democratic Party.

This year's state Supreme Court race is unlike many others, with control of the battleground state's highest court up for grabs and the issue of abortion front and center. The national implications of the race have drawn unprecedented donations from across the country.

More:Wisconsin's Supreme Court race holds high stakes. Here's a breakdown of issues the next court could hear, from abortion to voting rules.

Between Feb. 7 and March 20, Protasiewicz received $12.4 million in donations while Kelly received $2.2 million. About $8 million of Protasiewicz's donations were from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Billionaire financier George Soros donated $1 million the state Democrats on Feb. 22, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave $1 million on March 14 and Tulsa philanthropists Stacy and Lynn Schusterman made four donations in March totaling $1 million. The Schustermans had previously donated $40,000 to the party.

Philanthropist George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations.
Philanthropist George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations.

California physician Karla Jurvetson — who has focused her donations on female candidates and in 2020 gave nearly $15 million to boost Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary — also gave $500,000 to the state Democratic Party.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's campaign committee also gave $12,000 to the state Democratic Party on March 13.

In an interview with the Journal Sentinel last week, Protasiewicz said it is a good thing that the Supreme Court race is drawing national attention and donations from around the country.

"That helps me to communicate with people all over the state," Protasiewicz said. "That gives me the ability to be on TV. That gives me the ability to be on digital. That gives me to ability to travel all over the state and meet people."

Republicans were quick to criticize the Soros and Pritzker donations.

"George Soros and J.B. Pritzker's million-dollar contributions underscore that Protasiewicz will simply be a progressive rubber stamp," said Rachel Reisner, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. "They’ll drop whatever cash needed to buy her a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat because her pro-criminal record aligns with their agenda."

GOP megadonor Liz Uihlein, an Illinois resident who co-founded the Pleasant Prairie-based shipping supply giant Uline, donated $500,000 to the state Republican Party on March 10 — the most of any individual.

Her husband, Dick Uihlein, is supporting Fair Courts America, a super PAC that has spent nearly $5 million in 2023 on ads to boost Kelly. Dick Uihlein has donated $4 million of that total.

The Uihleins, who live in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, are two of the top GOP donors in the nation and have individually donated nearly $150 million to elect Republicans since the 1990s, with much of that money spent since 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

State Democratic Party spokesman Joe Oslund took aim at the Uihlein support.

"We encourage Dan Kelly and the Wisconsin GOP to terminate their arrangement as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dick Uihlein’s cardboard box factory before Uihlein-funded January 6th rioters get another chance at shredding the Constitution that Dan Kelly claims to love so deeply,” Oslund said.

Elizabeth Uihlein and Richard Uihlein.
Elizabeth Uihlein and Richard Uihlein.

Records show Kelly's campaign received contributions from members of two groups that have featured in Protasiewicz ads critical of Kelly.

The first ad focused on the Zignego family, who own a road construction business in Waukesha.

In the TV ad, Protasiewicz noted Kelly initially recused himself from a case brought by Timothy Zignego in 2019 over the state's voter rolls because the lawsuit was scheduled to be before the high court while he was on the ballot in 2020. After he lost to Justice Jill Karofsky, Kelly issued an order saying he would participate in the case.

The Protasiewicz ad tied Kelly's decision to rejoin the case to $20,000 worth of campaign donations from the Zignego family.

Kelly's campaign called the allegation a lie, noting that Kelly was ultimately not involved in the case's outcome as it was decided after his term had expired and Karofsky had replaced him.

Since the primary, six members of the Zignego family have given a total of $20,050 to the Kelly campaign.

Kelly also received $32,750 in contributions from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty's Board of Directors.

In a second ad, Protasiewicz accused Kelly of using his connections to WILL to benefit the organization's clients when he heard six cases between 2017 and June 2019. The ad points out that Kelly accepted more than $14,000 in campaign contributions from WILL board members and served on an advisory panel for the firm before being appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2016.

A Kelly spokesman said he did not start fundraising until after all the WILL cases were heard, so those donations would not have influenced his decisions. Kelly served on WILL's Litigation Advisory Board from 2011 to 2012.

Even though both ads left out significant facts, a Protasiewicz spokesman criticized the donations from the Zignego family and WILL's board.

"Dan Kelly's donors know that if they support him now, he'll bring back corruption to the court and rule in their favor every chance he gets, just like last time," said Sam Roecker, a spokesman for Protasiewicz. "No amount of money can hide the truth that Dan Kelly is a corrupt extremist who has no place on the court.”

But Kelly's campaign pointed the finger back at Protasiewicz.

"Janet Protasiewicz is a hypocrite of the highest degree who has repeatedly lied about Justice Kelly's record and character," said Kelly spokesman Ben Voelkel. "If she wants to see corruption and scandal, she should look in the mirror."

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Soros, Pritzker and Uihleins pour millions into Supreme Court race