Wisconsin Groups Keep It Local Amid Record Ad Blitz in Supreme Court Race

While community groups work to mobilize voters, a deluge of TV ads is set to make Wisconsin's the most expensive state supreme court race ever.

Wisconsin Groups Keep It Local Amid Record Ad Blitz in Supreme Court Race
Wisconsin members of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) at an event night

The April 4 election for a pivotal seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is on track to break spending records nationwide for a campaign of its type. With former Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, aligned with Democrats, facing off against former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, aligned with Republicans, more than $22.7 million in political ads have been ordered overall, according to the Buying Time resource from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. 

That ad deluge is already running neck-and-neck, when adjusted for inflation, with the previous record of $15.2 million spent in a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court contest—and a wave of ad spending is still expected to hit Wisconsin. This year’s spending is sure to shatter the previous state record set in the 2020 Wisconsin Supreme Court contest, which saw $10 million in total candidate and outside group spending.

Spending in state supreme court races has sharply risen over the past decade, with the previously-modest contests transforming into more partisan and high-profile battles, according to experts at the Brennan Center. An analysis co-authored by the institute’s Democracy counsel, Douglas Keith, found that the 2019-2020 cycle was the most expensive ever for state supreme court elections, with nearly $100 million shelled out by big donors and interest groups. The trend of record-high spending continued in the 2022 cycle, Keith and colleagues found, in court races in Illinois, Montana, and North Carolina. Spending in state judicial contests often takes the form of inflammatory TV ads accusing candidates of being “soft on crime,” paid for by obscure groups whose funding source is opaque to voters, but originates from corporations, trade associations, and “dark money” advocacy nonprofits.

The upcoming Wisconsin election is crucial in that three state Supreme Court justices lean liberal and four lean conservative, so the replacement for the retiring conservative justice will likely determine the court’s makeup in potentially taking up major cases on abortion access, nonpartisan redistricting, and voting rights. A strict 1849 state law on the books bans legal access to abortion procedures, which re-elected Democratic Wisconsin ​​Attorney General Josh Kaul is in the process of challenging. The candidate Protasiewicz launched ads affirming her support for access to abortion care, and while rival Kelly has recently declined to address questions about abortion rights, he’s been endorsed by three prominent state groups that oppose access to abortion and he previously performed work for Wisconsin Right to Life.

Wisconsin’s court election could change the legal landscape around redistricting in the battleground state, where Republican lawmakers have long entrenched district maps that give their candidates a sizable edge. In recent years, a Wisconsin Fair Maps campaign seeking to establish nonpartisan redistricting has been endorsed, through referendums and resolutions, by counties representing a vast majority of the state’s population. After an appeal to preserve the Republican-drawn district maps was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court and then bounced back to the state court level last year, further Democratic legal challenges to electoral boundaries are expected and could advance if Protasiewicz is elected. 

Court challenges to gerrymandering in Wisconsin date back to 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker signed the state Republican redistricting plan—which Kelly was hired to help defend with the state’s Department of Justice, led then by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.

‘Money Bomb’

Recent Supreme Court campaigns in the Badger State should have voters expecting a late-breaking ad push benefiting the conservative Kelly. In 2019’s contest between the Democratic-aligned Appeals Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer and Republican-aligned Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), the national group that campaigns for conservative state judicial candidates, spent more than $1.2 million in last-minute ads. Hagedorn won by less than one percent of the vote.

The watchdog and investigative group True North Research highlights how the RSLC, in a press release since taken offline, took credit for Hagedorn’s win through its spending blitz of more than a million dollars in the final week of the 2019 campaign—a sum that was only disclosed in an amended filing on Election Day. Another RSLC press release last year touted its “significant impact on the redistricting process” after sweeping five state Supreme Court races in North Carolina and Ohio. 

As a 527 organization, the RSLC can spend to support or oppose individual candidates for office, but only discloses its donors in periodic reports to the Internal Revenue Service, as opposed to more-frequent filings to the Federal Election Commission—and only in forms that run into the hundreds of pages, as opposed to parsable data. While the RSLC has not yet released a disclosure for 2023, a Sludge review of the group’s forms from 2021 and 2022 reveal that its largest donors have been the conservative Concord Fund, the dark money group closely tied to Leonard Leo, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conglomerate Koch Industries.

The RSLC says it has spent at least $29 million on court races over the past decade through its affiliate the Judicial Fairness Initiative. Evan Vorpahl, senior researcher with True North Research, says this cash deluge has largely gone to attack ads against judges who have reputations in their states for fairness.

“As a 527 organization, there are no limits on how much money the RSLC can receive from billionaires, dark money shell groups, and corporations,” Vorpahl told Sludge. “Last year, one of its top funders was Leonard Leo’s Concord Fund. Leo now sits at the helm of a billion-dollar trust fund that uses conduits to influence who becomes a state supreme court justice or state attorney general, now that he has packed the U.S. Supreme Court with the judges that overturned Roe v. Wade and are assailing other key precedents in our democracy.”

Vorphal added, “One of the RSLC’s other big funders has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose state affiliate Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has also received dark money from Leo’s operation.” In addition to the Concord Fund, True North found the state business group WMC has received funding from the Wellspring Committee, an influential dark money group in promoting Leonard Leo-approved U.S. Supreme Court nominees that abruptly shuttered in 2019. Figures this month from AdImpact Politics show that WMC has reserved $3.2 million in ads to support Kelly.

“We anticipate that RSLC will appear in Wisconsin again with a last-minute ‘dark money bomb’ in the last week of the election,” Vorpahl said. “In 2020 they backed Kelly’s bid to remain on the high court, which was roundly rejected by Wisconsin’s voters. Following the 2022 midterms, the Judicial Fairness Initiative stated it was looking forward to Wisconsin’s supreme court election, saying, ‘JFI will be there.’ We should take them at their word on this.” 

With Kelly’s recent campaign filing showing only $376,723 in the bank, his bid is evidently relying on deep-pocketed outside spending groups to carry the burden on ad buying. Kelly’s campaign is being backed by a bevy of super PACs including Fair Courts America, an offshoot of the Restoration PAC funded by right-wing billionaires Dick and Liz Uihlein, and the American Principles Project PAC, a Virginia-based right-wing policy think tank, among others. 

According to the Brennan Center’s tracker as of Mar. 14, Fair Courts America has ordered more than $4.4 million worth of political ads during the state court campaign, counting broadcast TV as well as cable, satellite, and radio ads. Behind it in spending, the advocacy arm of business group WMC has booked $3.5 million worth of political ads, and progressive group A Better Wisconsin Together has booked $2.8 million during the campaign.

Youth-Led Engagement

Leaders Igniting Transformation members at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT)

Wisconsin’s April 2020 election generated memorable images of the challenges around election access in the state, with students and city residents facing long lines to vote in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictive voting measures passed under state Republican control, like a strict voter ID law, cast a chill on voter turnout that disproportionately affects Black voters in counties—and places Wisconsin a distant 47th among states in ease of voting, according to one recent study.

A member of LIT at a summit
Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT)

Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT for short, is a youth-led civic engagement organization in Wisconsin that works to mobilize election participation among Black and brown youth across the state. Some of the organization’s priorities are ensuring fair redistricting for communities of color, expanding early voting hours and locations, and securing polling locations for students on college campuses. 

Amanda Avalos, co-executive director of LIT, told Sludge, “LIT creates resources to engage and educate youth on these issues and others that are important to young people’s daily lives—that includes things like unpacking the state budget and why it matters, demystifying the legislative process and what bills LIT supports, and hosting youth lobby days so legislators hear directly from youth about the issues they care about more.” Member stories, ranging from thoughts on Hispanic Heritage Month to the inequalities of the Covid-19 pandemic, can be read on the group’s blog. Avalos says the next youth lobby day will be held on April 18 at the Capitol in Madison.

‘How-Tos’ for Local Participation

League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (LWVWI) members in Milwaukee

Many voters casting a ballot will search for reliable information not just about candidates running in high-profile races, but also in less-familiar local contests. In January, the nonprofit League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (LWVWI) launched the latest version of its Vote411 voter guide, ahead of the primary and general elections, providing information in English and Spanish on the voting process, from the state Supreme Court runoff down to local races like circuit court judges and city boards. 

A table of voter education materials from LWVWI in Ripon, Wisconsin.

The online tool is just one way the nonpartisan LWVWI, established in 1920, stays active locally in informing and motivating the public to participate in democracy. Debra Cronmiller, executive director of LWVWI, told Sludge that group members are holding community forums and virtual briefings on issues like Fair Maps and the redistricting process, reproductive rights, PFAS chemicals and water quality, and the role of the courts on all those fronts, as well as judicial independence and accountability.

“We are supporting our 20 local Leagues by promoting their community events and outreach, developing ‘how-tos’ for participation, including bilingual materials and resources,” Cronmiller said. “In addition, we have developed and distributed our voter guide at VOTE411.org for statewide races, distributed 101 Guides about the judiciary and other elected offices, and created and distributed more Get out the Vote bilingual materials.” The LWVWI will also sponsor text and phone banking to remind voters to turn out, Cronmiller said.

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