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Jill Karofsky topples incumbent Daniel Kelly for Wisconsin Supreme Court seat
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Jill Karofsky topples incumbent Daniel Kelly for Wisconsin Supreme Court seat

Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky has toppled incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly to win a full 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

Unofficial election results from the Associated Press — which called the race about a half hour after Karofsky herself declared victory — showed with more than 80% of precincts reporting, Karofsky, a liberal, was leading Kelly, a conservative, 53% to 47% in the race for a slot on the bench. 

Karofsky's win means that liberals come August will have a 3-4 minority on Wisconsin’s highest court, chipping away at conservatives’ current 5-2 edge following the election of Justice Brian Hagedorn last April.

“Although we were successful in this race, the circumstances under which this election was conducted were simply unacceptable, and raise serious concerns for the future of our democracy," she said in a statement. "Nobody in this state or in this country should have been forced to choose between their safety and participating in an election."

First elected as Dane County judge three years ago, Karofsky, who has previously served as deputy district attorney for the county, has highlighted her values and called for getting the court “back on track.” 

She also has repeatedly knocked Kelly, who was first appointed to the bench in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker, for appearing corrupt and regularly ruling in favor of conservative interests. 

But Kelly -- who has consistently touted his judicial philosophy and commitment to interpreting laws as they’re written -- has rebuffed the charges and argued his decisions are based on a chain of “rigorous logic” that’s laid out in his writings.

He congratulated Karofsky in a statement Monday night, adding that serving on the court has been "the highest honor of my career." 

"As the campaign comes to its close, the work of the Court continues," he said. "My term ends on July 31, and I will dedicate every day from now until then to finishing well in my service to this state."

The results come almost a week after voters took to the polls to cast ballots in-person across Wisconsin amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Thousands more have submitted absentee ballots to their local clerks. 

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Many observers thought the results of the race would be closely tied to the Democratic presidential field. Though Wisconsin’s presidential primary and spring general drew nearer and the race became less competitive, it's likely Karofsky still got a boost from the top of the ticket. 

Rather than an active Democratic presidential field of more than a couple candidates, Wisconsin voters weighed in when just former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders were in the race -- and Sanders, who beat Hillary Clinton to win the state’s 2016 presidential primary, dropped out a day after the election.

The Supreme Court results are well outside of the 1 percentage point margin needed to request a recount. Candidates can only do so if they lost by 1 percentage point or less in an election with at least 4,000 total votes. Wisconsin Republicans raised the bar to request recounts in fall 2017 after Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who got just 1% of the vote, demanded a recount following President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. 

It's been more than a decade that a sitting Supreme Court justice lost a race. The last time was in 2008. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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