Skip Navigation

Final Ads Set to Air in Wisconsin Supreme Court Primary Race

With the Wisconsin Supreme Court primary days away on Feb. 16, combined television ad spending among candidates and special-interest groups has surpassed $710,000.

February 12, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC– With the Wisconsin Supreme Court primary days away on Feb. 16, combined television ad spending among candidates and special-interest groups has surpassed $710,000, according to an analysis of public FCC records by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The biggest spender continues to be the conservative group Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, whose TV ads support incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley. The two other candidates, State Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg and Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald, have also booked campaign ads. The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 16 race will advance to the general election on April 5.

To date, FCC records show the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has booked television ad contracts worth at least $435,020. Judge Kloppenburg’s campaign has booked contracts worth at least $132,785, while Judge Donald’s campaign has booked TV ads worth at least $142,505. The Bradley campaign has not booked TV ads, but is running radio ads. The Wisconsin Alliance for Reform is also running radio ads on her behalf.

The TV ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website. Totals are current as of 8 a.m. CT Feb. 12.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent on ads in this race, and a large percentage of that money is from an outside group that doesn’t have to disclose its donors,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a co-author of Bankrolling the Bench, a comprehensive report on spending in the 2013–14 judicial elections by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Voters deserve to know who is buying airtime, and what their interests are.”  

“Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election still has weeks to go before it’s all over, and spending is likely to go well into seven figures,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that tracks spending in judicial races and advocates for fair and impartial courts. “It’s bad enough when judges and justices are forced to raise money from parties who might appear before them in court, but when secret money from outside groups also floods a race, it’s alarming.”

Reported fundraising by all candidates has reached $947,055, according to state disclosures.

Total television spending has already surpassed levels in the 2015 Wisconsin Supreme Court election, where Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and the Greater Wisconsin Committee collectively spent an estimated $530,000, according to Kantar Media/CMAG. In 2013, television spending in the primary and general election together reached an estimated $734,000, as documented in Bankrolling the Bench. The highest documented television spending in a Wisconsin Supreme Court election was in 2011, where candidates and outside groups spent an estimated $3.96 million in a high-profile race between Judge Kloppenburg and incumbent Justice Prosser, which many sought to recast as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has recently faced intense scrutiny over the role of independent spenders. Last year, it ended an investigation into whether ostensibly independent groups had illegally coordinated with Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign. The ruling reduced the state’s legal barriers separating campaigns from outside groups. The decision also sparked controversy because each of the four justices who ruled to toss out the investigation heavily benefited from campaign spending by the groups under investigation during their own elections. Thus far, the groups named in that investigation have not spent money in the current Supreme Court race.

Through Feb. 12, the candidates’ campaigns have reported raising: 

Bradley: $323,292

Donald: $289,336

Kloppenburg: $334,427