How Daniel Kelly worked with the GOP to fuel election denialism
The conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate was involved in a GOP scheme to submit fake electors to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and was part of a nine-city ‘election integrity’ tour in 2022.
In August 2020, Judge Daniel Kelly, who had been appointed to an empty seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2016 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker but was fresh off the bench after losing an election to serve a full 10-year term, was hired by the Republican Party of Wisconsin to advise it on legal issues and strategies related to the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to recent reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Between 2020 and 2022, Kelly, who is currently campaigning for the seat on the Supreme Court being vacated by retiring Justice Patience Roggensack, was paid nearly $120,000 by the state GOP and the Republican National Committee to advise on election law issues, including a scheme involving fake electors for Donald Trump.
Kelly’s firm, Daniel Kelly Consulting, was paid $110,000 by the Republican National Committee between March and December 2022. He was also paid almost $8,500 by the Republican Part of Wisconsin for “legal services” between January 2021 and July 2022, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In his financial disclosure statement, Kelly said that he had worked as a spokesperson for the RNC.
According to the Journal Sentinel, Kelly spokesperson Jim Dick said: “After completing his time on the Supreme Court, Daniel Kelly provided legal counsel to several clients, amongst which were the RNC and RPW. … It is a maxim in the legal profession that the views of clients are not attributable to their attorneys.”
According to testimony before the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by supporters of former President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol by Andrew Hitt, the former chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, he and Kelly had “pretty extensive conversations” about a scheme to have fake GOP electors from the state cast ballots for Trump in the Electoral College, even though he had lost the popular vote in Wisconsin.
The plan, which was originally proposed in a memo by Trump attorney John Eastman, according to multiple outlets, would have had GOP officials in a handful of battleground states, including Wisconsin, submit their names on documents as electors pledged to Trump as if he had been the winner of the election in their state. Vice President Mike Pence would then use the false slate of electors during the election certification process in Congress.
Pence ultimately refused to do so.
That’s not the only involvement that Kelly had with the GOP in fueling conspiracy theories and misinformation related to the 2020 election.
In the summer of 2022, Kelly participated in an “election integrity roundtable” tour of nine cities in Wisconsin put on by the state Republican Party, according to the Associated Press. The events were billed as a way to “learn more about the party’s efforts to ensure 2022 is the year of fair, open, and honest elections in Wisconsin,” and organizers told the AP that the goal was “to recruit poll workers, observers and voting deputies.”
Liberal groups and lawmakers criticized it for promoting 2020 election misinformation, according to the Associated Press. Democratic state Rep. Mark Spreitzer called it a “conspiracy theory roadshow.”
According to the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct, Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin are nonpartisan. The code bars candidates from belonging to a political party, participating “in the affairs, caucuses, promotions, platforms, endorsements, conventions, or activities of a political party or of a candidate for partisan office,” or making or soliciting financial contributions to them. It says that candidates “may have aligned themselves with a particular political party and may have engaged in partisan political activities. Wisconsin adheres to the concept of a nonpartisian judiciary. A candidate for judicial office shall not appeal to partisanship and shall avoid partisan activity in the spirit of a nonpartisan judiciary.”
Kelly also has close ties to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a right-wing grantmaking organization that promotes conservative ideas. In 2021, New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer reported that the Bradley Foundation had given millions of dollars to groups that worked to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Kelly was previously a senior fellow at the Bradley-funded Institute for Reforming Government, a conservative think tank that advocates for tax reform and deregulation.
Kelly received payments from the Bradley Foundation for undisclosed work in 2022, according to financial disclosure forms. The foundation paid Kelly when Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer and former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, was the group’s secretary. In her reporting, Mayer described Mitchell as “an animating force behind the Bradley Foundation’s war on ‘election fraud.'”
Individually, the Bradley Foundation’s leaders — including the group’s president and CEO, former president, vice chair, and a board member — have given Kelly tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. He received more than $26,000 from them during the 2020 election cycle, and has received more than $30,000 from them so far this election cycle, according to campaign finance documents.
Though Kelly engaged in work with the Republican Party after he left the state Supreme Court and before he announced his second run, observers say his close ties to the GOP and his involvement in the scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election results raise concerns about how he might rule from the bench.
Christina Harvey, the executive director of Stand Up America, a grassroots voting rights reform advocacy group, in a statement issued after the Supreme Court primary election in February called Kelly an “extremist” judge and said his presence on the court would be “too great a risk for Wisconsin and—in such a close swing state—the country.”
Harvey isn’t alone. Ben Wikler, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, called Kelly “a fatally flawed and ethically compromised MAGA extremist.” With Kelly on the Supreme Court, Wikler said, “the very integrity of our democracy is called into question.”
In April 2022, the 4-3 conservative majority on the court ruled in favor of the Republican-controlled state Legislature in a case that challenged its redistricting, overriding Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto of legislative maps that critics said gave Republicans an unfair advantage. CNN reported in February that, according to Jay Heck, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin chapter of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause, should a liberal majority take over the court, it would be likely that progressive groups would file a new lawsuit to reevaluate the fairness of the maps.
Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate running in the April 4 election for the Supreme Court seat, has previously said that she thought the current election maps approved by the court were “rigged.”
Protasiewicz spokesperson Sam Roecker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Kelly is a “partisan extremist” and that his involvement in the fake electors scheme should be “disqualifying” for him to sit on the state Supreme Court. In an interview with the American Independent Foundation last month, Protasiewicz said, “Quite frankly, our democracy is on the line with this seat.” Wisconsin needs “an impartial court, not an activist court,” she said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
Updated 3/28 with more information about the Bradley Foundation’s support for Kelly.
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