Wisconsin Supreme Court Race: $1.3 Million in Spending, Partisan Political Rhetoric

February 16, 2018

True to the recent history of Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin, this year’s race for an open seat on the Court is on pace to see more than $1.3 million in spending. Dark money groups, which conceal their donors from the public, are a major factor. Notably, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the dark money group at the center of the “John Doe” investigation into allegedly illegal coordination between outside groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, has already spent more than $320,000 on TV ads supporting Judge Michael Screnock. Wisconsin will hold the primary for the state supreme court vacancy on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is tracking television, radio, and digital ad spending in the race. We found:

  • Candidates have already raised a combined $1.31 million, according to their filings posted this week. In the 2015-2016 cycle, more state supreme court justices than ever – 27 in total – were elected in races that saw more than $1 million in total spending.
  • TV and radio spending has reached $744,470, according to FCC filings through 7 a.m. Friday, more than half of which – $395,902 – comes from outside groups, and all of that outside spending comes from groups that conceal their donors from the public. Nationally, 82 percent of spending by outside groups in state supreme court elections was nontransparent in 2015-2016.
  • Candidates are emphasizing national political themes in a manner more common in party politics than court races – in her first ad, Judge Rebecca Dallet contrasted herself with President Trump, and a new ad from Tim Burns says that Burns will be, “a justice with the courage to take on [Gov.] Scott Walker.”

“State supreme courts play a vital, independent role as a check on the partisan excesses of the elected branches,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “When they’re forced to solicit massive sums from special interests, or run on the hot political issues of the moment, their ability to neutrally and effectively interpret the law is affected.”

"Wisconsinites are already being subjected to tens of thousands of dollars-worth of dark money political messages from outside special interest groups, like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "The combination of this dark money spending – which will accelerate leading up to April 3rd – and the lack of strong recusal rules, combine to undermine the fair and impartial rendering of genuine justice for citizens in this state," Heck added.

Detailed ad spending data for individual candidates and groups, including spending estimates, ads, and storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, can be found on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time: Wisconsin 2018 webpage.

For national trends, read Who Pays for Judicial Elections?, the latest in the Brennan Center and National Institute on Money in State Politics’ Politics of Judicial Elections series.