Wisconsin Supreme Court Election Passes $2.5 Million in TV ads

March 30, 2018

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters will decide whether Judge Rebecca Dallet or Judge Michael Screnock will be the next justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The race has seen millions of dollars in spending, much of it from outside groups unencumbered by campaign finance regulations.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is tracking television, radio, and digital ad spending in the race, using data from FCC filings and Kantor Media/CMAG. As of 8 a.m. Friday, we found:

  • Candidate Fundraising: The candidates themselves have raised $2.3 million, according to filings posted this week, matching what candidates raised in Wisconsin’s last supreme court race in 2016. That includes totals from Tim Burns, who lost in the February primary.
  • TV Spending: With days to go, the race has already seen $2.6 million in spending on TV and radio ads, including $1.8 million in March alone. There was $3.2 million in TV ads in the 2016 race.
  • Spending by outside groups makes up 67 percent of all TV and radio spending in the race, or $1.7 million. The groups involved are regular players in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has spent $939,000 supporting Screnock, more than twice what any candidate has spent on ads, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee has spent $655,000 supporting Dallet.
  • Attack ads in the last week have gone after both candidates for decisions in criminal cases, according to storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG. This type of ad is common in state supreme court races, but troubling given research showing that that election pressures may have an impact on how judges rule in criminal cases.
  • Digital ads: Candidates and outside groups have spent significant sums on online ads: at least $338,000 in total, including $165,000 from former-Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee supporting Dallet, according to state campaign finance filings.

“Across the country, partisan attacks on the judiciary threaten its independence,” said Douglas Keith, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Millions of dollars of opaque outside spending and misleading attack ads only further undermine the public’s confidence in its judges.”

Wisconsin’s nonpartisan State Supreme Court elections are supposed to ensure that justices put law above politics,” said Erin Grunze, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. “But nearly nonexistent recusal and transparency laws pave the way for outside and secret spending by interest groups that destroy public confidence.”   

Detailed ad 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.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292-8381 or naren.daniel@nyu.edu.