TV Ad Spending By Special Interest Groups Tops $1 Million in Wisconsin Judicial Election

March 29, 2011

Special Interests Outspend Candidates by More than Four to One, Brennan Center Says

New York, NY — With one week to go before Election Day, spending on television advertising has reached nearly $1.4 million in the race for a seat on the Supreme Court of Wisconsin between incumbent Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg. Of this total, approximately 82 percent was spent by non-candidate special interest groups, which have been energized by ongoing protests at the state Capitol over Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining policies.

Through Sunday, March 27th, three special interest groups had spent more than $1.14 million on TV, according to data accumulated by the Brennan Center for Justice. Leading the pack is the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, which, beginning March 18th, has spent more than $575,000 on blistering attack ads targeting Justice Prosser. While the Greater Wisconsin Committee has, to date, been the single largest spender on TV in the race, the conservative groups Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturer & Commerce’s WMC Issues Mobilization Council, Inc. have also poured money into the race on pro-Prosser TV ads. Through Sunday, March 27th, the Club for Growth had spent approximately $415,000, and the WMC Issues Mobilization Council about $150,000. These numbers are expected to rise substantially in the final week before Election Day: According to the Brennan Center, 42 percent of all judicial election TV spending in 2010 occurred in the last week of the election season.

“The level of TV spending in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election is beyond what many would have projected at the outset of the campaign. The spending is being driven by TV ads by non-candidate special interest groups, which have upped their spending in response to the political battles being fought at the state Capitol,” said Adam Skaggs, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Fair Courts Project. “Both candidates, who are participating in the state’s judicial public financing program, received sufficient funds to mount a competitive race, and outside interest groups, which have historically been active in Wisconsin judicial elections, are very engaged this year, outspending the candidates by a 4 to 1 margin.”

Prosser and Kloppenburg are both participating in Wisconsin’s new judicial public financing program, which provided each of the candidates with $100,000 in public money for the primary campaign, and $300,000 for the general election.

According to Skaggs, both the amount of interest group spending and its share of the total spent on TV ads are up this year compared to the last Supreme Court election in 2009, when non-candidate group spending was approximately $305,000 — about 23 percent of all TV spending that year. Thus far, however, this year’s totals have yet to reach the record-setting levels seen in the 2008 election between then-Justice Louis Butler and challenger Michael Gableman. Non-candidate groups dumped more than $3.3 million of TV ads into the highly competitive 2008 race, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all TV spending. Gableman became the first challenger to beat a sitting Wisconsin justice in more than 40 years.

Kloppenburg’s hopes of repeating Gableman’s rare achievement and toppling an incumbent justice may benefit from the inordinate amount of attention the race has received following Governor Walker’s push to change the state’s collective bargaining provisions, a move that sparked weeks of protests at the state Capitol. Since the protests, interest in the Supreme Court race has soared as liberal-leaning organizations have attacked Prosser as a “rubber stamp” for Walker, and business groups have warned that a Kloppenburg victory could endanger Walker’s legislative accomplishments if and when the Supreme Court rules on challenges to the legislation.

During the primary campaign, the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth spent $408,000 on pro-Prosser TV ads, accounting for 69 percent of total TV spending in the primary. Prosser won the primary handily, and most observers projected he would easily win the general election. Anger at Governor Walker, however — and early missteps in which Prosser’s campaign aligned itself closely with Walker — have energized Kloppenburg’s supporters, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee has become the highest overall spender on TV ads.

The TV ad spending data reflected ads aired through Sunday, March 27, and were gathered by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG for the Brennan Center. Streaming video and storyboards of every television advertisement aired in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election this year are available on the Brennan Center’s website, at http://www.brennancenter.org/WI_2011.

For more information or to set up an interview, please contact Erik Opsal at 646-292-8356 or at erik.opsal@nyu.edu.

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The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. The Center works on issues including judicial independence, voting rights, campaign finance reform, racial justice in criminal law, and presidential power in the fight against terrorism. Part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group, the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector. For more information, visit www.brennancenter.org.

TV Methodology
All data on ad airings and spending on ads are calculated and prepared by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, which captures satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements. The costs reported here therefore understate actual expenditures; the estimates are useful principally for purposes of comparison of relative spending levels across time and among states.