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Wisconsin justice included horses in ads as vulgar joke about opponent, campaign manager says

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz's campaign consultant inserted images of horses in ads as a vulgar joke about her opponent, her campaign manager told a liberal podcast last month.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday that Protasiewicz's campaign manager, Alejandro Verdin, told The Downballot podcast on Jan. 25 that her campaign operatives had heard people make baseless jokes at campaign focus groups and functions that her opponent, Dan Kelly, looked like someone who fornicates with horses.

Protasiewicz's media consultant, Ben Nuckels, inserted hidden images of horses in television ads attacking Kelly as an inside joke, Verdin said. A review of Protasiewicz's ads on her YouTube site turned up horses in the background in at least three ads.

Nuckels also produced a radio ad with a narrator with a western drawl saying “Dirty Dan” was riding off into the sunset as horses whinny in the background. That ad also was part of the joke, Verdin said.

“It was quite hilarious,” Verdin said during the podcast.

Kelly didn't immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press on Tuesday. He told the Journal Sentinel that he found the joke “sick" and Wisconsin residents should be appalled.

“This goes a long way towards explaining why Janet Protasiewicz’s campaign was so dishonest, undignified and lacking in respect for the office of Supreme Court justice," Kelly told the newspaper.

A Protasiewicz campaign spokesperson declined comment Tuesday, adding that Verdin and Nuckels would have no comment, either. Asked for comment from Protasiewicz herself, her Supreme Court law clerk Ryan Birschbach referred questions to the campaign.

Protasiewicz defeated Kelly in a race for an open Supreme Court seat last April. The win handed liberals a 4-3 majority on the court.

Protasiewicz leaned into anger over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn its landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, declaring on the campaign trail that she supports abortion rights. Protasiewicz also declared during the campaign that she thought Republican-drawn legislative boundaries were “rigged.” Both moves were highly unusual; typically judicial candidates refrain from revealing their stances to avoid the appearance of bias.

The court's liberal majority overturned the GOP maps in December and has ordered the Legislature to draw new ones.

The justices will likely decide in the coming months whether Wisconsin's 174-year-old ban on abortion stands. A Dane County judge in September ruled the ban prohibits feticide — harming a woman in an attempt to kill her unborn child — but not abortion. Republicans have appealed the decision.

Republican legislators have called for impeaching Protasiewicz over her campaign comments, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has backed off that position and such a move appears unlikely.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the judge’s last name on first reference to Protasiewicz, not Protasiwiecz.