Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Janet Protasiewicz campaign official claims vulgar reason for embedding horses in ads

From JSOnline:

Molly BeckJessie Opoien
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz (center) holds hands with Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, Rebecca Dallet (far let),and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley (right of Protasiewicz) at Protasiewicz’s election night watch party for state Supreme Court at Saint Kate - The Arts Hotel in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Wisconsin voters headed to the polls for the spring general election to determine a new justice on the Supreme Court as well as other local, nonpartisan offices. Protasiewicz is facing off against Daniel Kelly for a spot on Wisconsin's top court.
Mike De Sisti / The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - Wisconsin voters were bombarded with ads last year in the most expensive state court race in U.S. history, but they probably didn't notice commercials paid for by Janet Protasiewicz's campaign featured a number of horses. That unusual detail was never explained to voters — until now, when a campaign official claimed a crude reason.

Protasiewicz’s campaign for Wisconsin Supreme Court used a portion of its massive fundraising haul to hide horse figurines and feature neighing in ads as an apparent subliminal reference to baseless inside jokes about her opponent fornicating with horses, Protasiewicz's campaign manager said in a recent interview.

Protasiewicz's campaign manager Alejandro Verdin said in a Jan. 25 appearance with a liberal podcaster that the campaign hid images of horses in negative campaign ads against former Justice Daniel Kelly, and used audio of a horse neighing in one radio spot, to convey the message he alleged came from focus groups: that Kelly looked like a "horse (expletive)."

Alerted to Verdin's comments, Kelly told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "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."

"This is just sick," Kelly said. "Wisconsinites ought to be appalled by this kind of vulgarity and vileness."

Verdin boasted about the activities on "The Downballot," a podcast produced by the liberal Daily Kos, and promoted the episode on social media. He did not provide evidence to back up his claim.

According to a source with Protasiewicz's campaign, the new justice was not aware of the horse imagery in the ads. Verdin, Protasiewicz, and other members of the campaign declined or did not respond to interview requests.

A quick review of the campaign’s TV and radio ads found that there were, indeed, hidden horses on more than one occasion, such as positioned in front of a plant pot in one ad's background. A horse figurine can be seen in the background of at least three television spots (a fourth was too blurry to confirm).

The campaign also ran a radio ad poking at Kelly’s family history — the candidate described his dad, who worked on ranches in Wyoming, Colorado and California, as an “honest-to-god cowboy.” 

Kelly sometimes shared an anecdote on the campaign trail about his father promising that, while he could not leave him many material possessions, he would leave his son "a good name."

“There goes dirty Dan Kelly, riding off into the sunset of his pathetic, dishonest campaign,” said a narrator after the sound of a horse neighing.

Verdin told podcast co-host David Beard the initial accusation came from a participant in a focus group for Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky's 2020 campaign against Kelly. A former campaign aide for Karofsky declined to confirm the story.

"This was sort of like an internal joke that we all kind of laughed about, because it was just such like a weird thing. But then, like, weirdly, we started hearing it on the campaign trail from other people," Verdin said in the interview.

Verdin said the internal joke was taken "to another level" by media consultant Ben Nuckels, who also worked on Gov. Tony Evers' campaigns.

"He literally hid visuals of horses in nearly every negative ad produced against Dan Kelly," Verdin said. "You don't see it and we didn't catch on. And like, he did it really well."

Nuckels declined to be interviewed.

Verdin said he found the chatter "funny."

"The thing that was so funny about it was that one, it's an uncommon insult; two, it's just like a very weird thing. And three, the funniest thing about this is that Dan Kelly, his father was a cowboy from the West ... and Dan Kelly himself was a horseman."

Protasiewicz defeated Kelly by 11 points in April 2023, securing a liberal majority on the court for the first time in years. It was the most expensive judicial contest in U.S. history, with spending tallies from the nationally spotlighted election surpassing $50 million.

The Protasiewicz campaign spent nearly $13 million on TV advertising. It's unclear how much of that was allocated to ads featuring horses.

Molly Beck and Jessie Opoien can be reached at and