Outside Spending Dominates as Wisconsin Supreme Court Primary Nears

February 9, 2016

Two candidates now airing TV ads

WASHINGTON, DC – With a week to go before Wisconsin’s Feb. 16 Supreme Court primary, television advertising continues to be dominated by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform. The group has booked contracts worth at least $399,060, according to an analysis of public FCC records by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Alliance’s advertising supports incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley, who is in a three-way primary race with Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald and State Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. The top two candidates will advance to the general election on April 5.

Judge Kloppenburg began airing TV ads in recent days and has booked contracts worth at least $96,276, according to FCC files. Judge Donald also began airing TV ads this week and has booked contracts worth at least $31,790, according to FCC records.  Ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website. Totals are current as of 8 am CT February 9.

Reported ad spending is likely to go significantly higher by primary day, and there have been local media reports that spending by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform could go as high as $1 million.

Meanwhile, reported fundraising by all candidates has topped $944,544, according to state disclosures.

“Year after year, deep-pocketed special interests push their way into state high court elections with heavy ad spending, and agendas as mysterious as their donor lists,” 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. “Wisconsinites are rightly concerned, and this could be a very good time for election reforms to take politics and campaign cash out of their courts.”  

“High levels of outside spending have become the new normal in states around the country,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy program and a coauthor of Bankrolling the Bench. “Unfortunately, campaign finance and recusal rules in Wisconsin have not only failed to keep pace, but have actually become weaker.”

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, noted that outside spending is gaining an increasing hold on state Supreme Court elections nationwide. In the 2013-14 cycle, outside spending by interest groups accounted for a record 29 percent of total spending in these races.

Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ended an investigation into whether ostensibly “independent” groups had illegally coordinated with Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling reduced the state’s legal barriers separating campaigns from supposedly independent groups. The decision also sparked controversy because each of the four justices who ruled to toss out the investigation heavily benefited from campaign spending from the groups under investigation during their own elections for judicial office.

Justice Bradley’s campaign has not booked any television contracts to date, but state disclosures indicate that the campaign has spent $80,000 on radio advertising. Local media report that the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has also begun airing pro-Bradley radio advertisements, costing an as-yet undisclosed amount.

Through February 8, the candidates’ campaigns have reported raising: 

Bradley: $320,792

Donald: $289,336

Kloppenburg: $334,427