First TV Ads Booked for Wisconsin Supreme Court General Election

March 8, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC – With the Wisconsin Supreme Court general election less than a month away on April 5, new television ad contracts worth at least $343,795* have been booked by the conservative Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, according to an analysis of public FCC records by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The new ads are set to begin airing today in the Milwaukee, Green Bay, Eau Claire, and Chippewa Falls markets. They will run until March 27, according to the FCC data; local media reports suggest additional buys will follow and total purchases may climb significantly higher. The Wisconsin Alliance for Reform ran TV ads supporting incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley in the primary election that took place February 16. The group was the single biggest TV ad spender during the primary portion of the race, booking broadcast TV ad contracts worth at least $442,095 according to FCC files. No other outside groups have recorded TV ad contract buys to date.

Justice Bradley will face State Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in the general election. Neither candidate’s campaign has yet booked TV ad time for the general election, according to records.  

The TV ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website within 24 hours of beginning to air. Totals are current as of 8 a.m. CT March 8.

“With a polarized court and a high-stakes election, Wisconsin is poised for another costly and nasty supreme court race,” 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. “Special interest spending over the past decade has left the court mired in conflicts of interest, raising concerns about the integrity of the system.”

“This is a huge red flag telling us that when it’s all over, Wisconsin is going to have another very expensive and contentious Supreme Court election cycle this year,” said Susan Liss, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that tracks spending in judicial races and advocates for fair and impartial courts. “The pace was set in the primary, and this new round of spending on the general election could fuel an ad war on all sides that hurts confidence in the courts and does a terrible disservice to voters.”

Wisconsin has a long history of outside spending dominating state supreme court elections. And in recent years, the funds have been the subject of increased controversy.  Last year, the Court ended an investigation into whether ostensibly independent groups had illegally coordinated with Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign. That ruling resulted in lowering the state’s legal barriers separating campaigns from outside groups. Adding to the controversial nature of the ruling was the fact that each of the four justices who ruled to toss out the investigation had benefited from judicial campaign spending by the groups under investigation. To date, none of the groups named in that investigation have spent money in the current race.

Meanwhile, reported fundraising by the two general election candidates has reached a combined $659,985 according to state disclosures, as follows:  

Bradley: $323,292

Kloppenburg: $336,693

*Correction (4/22/16): Due to a calculation error, the spending by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform on television advertisements was misreported as $369,970. The correct television figure is $343,795.