No matter who wins Tuesday’s critical Wisconsin Supreme Court race, it’s clear that local television news stations failed Wisconsin voters by not adequately contextualizing the candidacy of far-right judge Daniel Kelly.
In February, Media Matters reported that local television stations in Wisconsin had largely failed to adequately report on Kelly’s extreme track record leading up to the state's Supreme Court primary election. While reporting on the election, several local TV news outlets failed to note Kelly’s extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ positions, his associations with far-right organizations and causes, and his role consulting state-level GOP officials who plotted to send fake electors to Washington, D.C. to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Since advancing to the general election, Kelly has cozied up to more far-right figures and organizations, including campaigning with a QAnon conspiracy theorist. Despite this, local television stations have mostly failed to adequately highlight Kelly’s extremism or press him on his ties to far-right figures. (Notably, PBS Wisconsin and WSAW both challenged Kelly on his role in the fake electors scheme during recent interviews.)
Several stations also ran campaign finance segments that did not mention the millions of dollars dark money groups have spent in support of Kelly, including more than $6 million in support from groups associated with “Stop the Steal”-funding billionaire Richard Uihlein. Instead, those reports focused solely on raw campaign contributions.
Wisconsin TV news outlets did not adequately press Kelly on his ties to far-right figures and organizations during candidate interviews
During his campaign, Kelly has not been shy about courting help from the far right.
Kelly has openly campaigned with far-right organizer Scott Presler, a “Stop the Steal” organizer and QAnon conspiracy theorist. Presler has highlighted his work campaigning for Kelly and boosted the judge's candidacy during appearances on right-wing media programming and he has also used the antisemitic platform Gab to solicit votes and recruit volunteers to join Kelly’s campaign. When pressed on his association with Presler, Kelly described him as “invaluable.”
On March 21, Kelly spoke at a virtual event alongside an antisemitic pastor who has said killing abortion providers is a “justifiable homicide.” The event was hosted by the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, a group of self-styled “Christian Patriots.”
Yet during recent interviews ahead of the April 4 election, local television journalists have continued to allow Kelly to frame himself as a nonpartisan arbiter of justice while ignoring his far-right ties:
- During a nearly 20-minute interview in late March, WLUK anchor Mark Leland did not ask Kelly about his affiliations with far-right organizations or his role in counseling Wisconsin GOP officials on their fake electors scheme. Instead, Leland largely asked Kelly a series of open-ended questions, including, “How are you able to separate politics out of that decision-making process on the Supreme Court?”
- During an interview with Kelly on March 30, WBAY reporter Jason Zimmerman did not push back on Kelly’s claims of nonpartisanship. Instead of asking Kelly about his appearance alongside a pastor who has called for the murder of abortion providers or the radical anti-abortion groups supporting his candidacy, Zimmerman highlighted Kelly’s claim that he would consider striking down the state’s 1849 abortion ban “if that’s what the law requires.” Zimmerman also did not ask Kelly about his ties to Presler or other right-wing extremists or his GOP consulting. Instead, Zimmerman offered Kelly an opportunity to respond to negative ads attacking him.
- During an interview with WISN, anchor Gerron Jordan and political director Matt Smith asked Kelly about the preponderance of negative ads and why the Supreme Court race has become so political, but they did not press him on his association with far-right figures and organizations.
Several local news reports failed to note that Kelly’s campaign is heavily funded by a notorious election denier
Meanwhile, Kelly has raised millions of dollars from election-denying donors, once earned six figures consulting the Republican National Committee on “election integrity” issues, and received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump ahead of his 2020 Supreme Court reelection bid. After the February primary, Kelly told a conservative crowd at a Republican dinner they should support him because of the ample financial support he would have from election-denying Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein.
Outside groups associated with Uihlein, including American Principles Project, Fair Courts America, and Women Speak Out, have spent nearly $8 million supporting Kelly or attacking his opponent. Those organizations have flooded Wisconsin with anti-trans ads and have used a pay-for-play hyperpartisan website to baselessly allege that Protasiewicz is in favor of grooming children. Another headline on the same site claimed that “Protasiewicz will carry out Planned Parenthood’s agenda.”
And even though recent reports show that outside spending in support of Kelly has surpassed ad buys for Protasiewicz, several local media outlets told their audiences that Protasiewicz was well ahead of Kelly in the money race, citing fundraising data that only included formal campaign contributions:
- A report from March 29 on WMTV marveled at the amount of partisan spending on the judicial race, which is estimated to be the most expensive such campaign in U.S. history. The report mentioned that Protasiewicz outraised Kelly by an enormous margin, but did not mention the millions of dollars outside groups have spent supporting Kelly.
- A March 30 report from WMTV that focused on the influence of money and partisanship in the Supreme Court race, noted that Protasiewicz had raised $14.5 million and that Kelly had “raised nearly $3 million.” The report did not mention the millions of dollars of dark money supporting Kelly’s campaign.
- WLUK reprinted an Associated Press report on its website under the headline “Liberal-backed Protasiewicz outraises conservative-backed Kelly in Supreme Court race.” The March 28 report detailed the ins and outs of formal campaign donations but did not mention the Kelly campaign’s reliance on dark money, noting only that “third-party groups have helped Kelly narrow the gap” in the race.
Some local news reports addressed Kelly’s extremism and pressed him on his role in the “fake electors” scheme
While most reports failed to include details about Kelly’s record of extremism or lacked adequate context, some local news outlets in recent weeks have adequately reported on his far-right candidacy:
- During an interview published on March 31, PBS Wisconsin anchor Frederica Freyberg pushed Kelly on accusations about the “false electors” scheme and asked him about the “pretty extensive conversations” Kelly reportedly had with GOP officials about their plan to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
- In a recent report for WSAW, reporter Emily Davies mentioned that Kelly had been criticized for “work with conservative groups and the Republican Party, including counseling those who participated in the fake electors plan in 2020.” Davies then asked Kelly to respond to blog posts he penned where he called abortion “sexual libertinism” and compared Social Security and Medicare to “involuntary servitude.”
- A March 24 segment from WJFW about Kelly’s ties to Presler stated: “Dan Kelly said that he had ‘no problem’ with someone who was on the U.S. Capitol grounds during the January 6 insurrection campaigning for him across the state.”
- On March 23, WISC ran a segment about how the state Supreme Court race had become “increasingly political, with both candidates calling out each others’ ties to organizations on the political right or left,” mentioning Kelly’s appearance alongside an antisemitic pastor who has said murdering abortion doctors was “justifiable homicide.”