So, You’re Okay With Out Of State Money Buying Wisconsin Supreme Court Seats?

The Wisconsin Spring Non-Partisan Primary is this Tuesday, February 21st. For much of the state the only race on the ballot is for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And there are four candidates running…two conservatives…and two liberals…in a non-partisan race. Supreme Court seats are officially nonpartisan but candidates run as conservatives or liberals with campaigns that are backed by the state’s political parties.

The conservatives are former-Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow. On the liberal side are Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. In Wisconsin, the two highest vote getters will advance to the Spring General election in April, and given the candidates and their stances there is a good chance that the general will see one conservative and one liberal on the ballot.

I am not making an endorsement in this post…this is about campaign finance instead. I apologize that many of the quotes below come from a JSOnline (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) article that is behind a fire wall but I will try to pull out all of the pertinent information.

Wisconsin’s officially nonpartisan Supreme Court race is getting big money from outside interest groups in one of the hotly contested races in the country.

…Wisconsin’s Supreme Court candidates and outside groups are expected to pay out at least $6 million by the Feb. 21 primary election. That puts the race well on its way to eclipsing the record $10 million spent in the entire 2020 contest for the state’s highest court.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel compiled spending data from several sources that track media buys and found that, as Feb. 10, all sides have a combined $5.6 million in spending — about $4.3 million by outside interest groups and more than $1.3 million by the candidates.

Two sources said total spending will cross the $6 million mark by the primary and is likely to top $7 million. This includes money being paid out for TV, radio and digital ads as well as mailers and social media.

“Outside interest groups are suffocating us under an avalanche of spending so the voices of average citizens are drowned out by multimillionaires and billionaires who are able to run ads,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Why should someone who lives in California, New York or Nebraska tell us who should sit on our Supreme Court?”

The TV, radio and digital ads are being paid for by two candidates and about a half-dozen outside interest groups:

  • Fair Courts America, a super PAC underwritten by billionaire and GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein, is spending $1.79 million. The group is backing Kelly.
  • The liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together is spending $1.22 million on ads attacking Dorow.
  • Protasiewicz, who has raised far more money than her foes, is spending $1 million.
  • Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, led by conservative Eric O’Keefe, is spending $520,000 and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s business lobby, is paying out $250,000 on the same ads attacking Protasiewicz, a source said.
  • Dorow is spending $349,635.
  • Conservative Action for America, a pro-Dorow group, is spending $246,000.
  • Protect our Families, an anti-Dorow super PAC, is spending $195,251.
  • Justice for Wisconsin, a new group favoring Dorow, is expected to spend more than $100,000 on radio spots.

Outside spending reached a record high of $5 million in 2020 in the race between liberal Jill Karofsky and Kelly, a conservative who was then the incumbent. In that race, A Better Wisconsin Together spent $1.9 million. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce paid out $1.1 million. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent $897,000. Americans for Prosperity dropped $479,000, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

That record will soon be broken.

    Rothschild said the problem with this much outside money is the influence that comes with it. The Supreme Court could be deciding some of the biggest issues facing Wisconsin, including state election maps and abortion law.

    “There is a problem of corruption,” Rothschild said. “These big donors throw around money and they have access to someone who holds a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

    where ever highlighted in bold: emphasis mine

    I am definitely not Okay with this. I have put forward my proposed campaign finance reform platform here on Blogging Blue a number of times. HERE and HERE for example. And just a short recap. Out of state agents, whether individuals, PACs, businesses, or other should NEVER be allowed to spend money on a local campaign. Never.

    But there is one individual with actual skin in the game who is in favor of this outside spending and unsurprisingly it is that former justice, Dan Kelly. And again these quotes are from JSOnline and behind their fire wall. Big special interest money is flowing into the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Dan Kelly says that’s good for him.

    Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly has come up with another argument for why he says he’s a better choice for conservative voters than rival Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow.

    Cash. Specifically, the cash he says he can pull in from outside interest groups that, he suggests, Dorow can’t.

    While politicians — particularly those running for judicial office — typically shy away from talk of super PACS and outside interest groups, Kelly told a Price County GOP caucus he is in the best position to bring in outside money — a statement that a lawyer specializing in campaign finance said should raise eyebrows.

    Kelly, who has challenged Dorow on her level of experience and conservative credentials, said the race is shaping up to bring in $20 million in outside donations from both conservative and liberal donors.

    “Our campaign is really going to be a very small piece of total spend,” Kelly said. “Where you gonna get the other $20 million from? There are these organizations around the country, and they have specific concerns. And they will only support a candidate who has a proven record of constitutional conservatism.”

    Just a bit venal even for Dan Kelly, don’t you think? So it is time for Wisconsin to reform who can contribute and how a campaign is financed in the state.


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