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How Wisconsin Supreme Court Races Became So Partisan

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
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on Thursday, 15 December 2022
in Wisconsin

wis-supreme-courtJudicial races in Wisconsin are supposed to be nonpartisan, but over the last 15 years they have become increasingly partisan. Read how the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce tilted the scales.

MADISON - Judicial races in Wisconsin are supposed to be nonpartisan. Technically, they still are. And ideally, that’s the way they should be.

Our judges and justices should be above partisanship. They should be impartial arbiters of the law, not beholden to one party or another -- or one ideology or another.

But over the last 15 years, this ideal has fallen by the wayside, as our judicial elections, especially for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, have become increasingly partisan.

This stems largely from a decision by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce to start throwing huge amounts of money into the races for Wisconsin Supreme Court, and then for liberal groups to respond in kind.

The push by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce was part of a coordinated move by big business groups around the country to throw themselves into state court races. It also reflected the decades-long strategy by the Koch Brothers and other rightwing forces to take over every lever of political power.

“State Supreme Court elections attracted record sums from business interests,” noted a 2007 report from the Brennan Institute and two other groups.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it bluntly that year:

“In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the constitution.”

It wasn’t always this way in Wisconsin. For many years, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had a tremendous national reputation, and outside money played little, if any, role in who got on the court.

For instance, in 2003, in the race between Pat Roggensack and Ed Brunner, outside groups spent all of $27,200 on independent expenditures.

But look what happened in 2007, when Linda Clifford challenged Annette Ziegler. In this one, outside groups spent $3.1 million – more than 100 times what they spent in 2003. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce itself shelled out $2.2 million for Ziegler, and the rightwing Club for Growth spent $400,000 for her. The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $400,000 for Clifford.

michael_gablemanThen in 2008, outside groups spent $4.8 million when a guy named Michael Gableman challenged Louis Butler, the first African American ever to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Gableman campaign ran hideously racist ads against Butler and was aided by $1.8 million in expenditures by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. The Greater Wisconsin Committee countered with $1.5 million, and Club for Growth poured in $500,000.

The 2009 race between Shirley Abrahamson and Randy Koschnick was an anomaly, with outside groups spending only $577,000. (Abrahamson had raised a lot of money on her own and seemed unbeatable, so the outside groups stayed away, by and large.)

In 2011, in the throes of the anti-Walker protests, the outside groups jumped back in, spending $4.5 million in the race between David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. Here, the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $1.7 million for Kloppenburg, with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spending $1.1 million for Prosser.

In 2013, things calmed down a bit, with outside groups spending $1.2 million in the race between Pat Roggensack and Ed Fallone. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent $500,000 in this one for Roggensack. Club for Growth spent $350,000 for her. And the Wisconsin Realtors Association spent $207,000 for her.

The 2015 race between Ann Walsh Bradley and James Daley was another anomaly, with only $171,000 in outside spending, with all but $2,000 of that was from the Greater Wisconsin Committee in favor of Ann Walsh Bradley. (Like Abrahamson in 2009, Bradley had raised a lot of money on her own and most outside groups held their fire.)

rebecca-bradleyIn 2016, JoAnne Kloppenburg challenged Rebecca Bradley, and outside groups spent $3.43 million. Here, the leading rightwing spender was the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, which spent $2.6 million on behalf of Rebecca Bradley. The Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $710,000 for Kloppenburg.

In 2018, outside groups spent $2.8 million in the race between Rebecca Dallet and challenger Michael Screnock. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent $1.2 million on behalf of Screnock. The Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $940,000 on behalf of Dallet.

In 2019, outside groups spent $4.5 million in the race between Brian Hagedorn and challenger Lisa Neubauer. In this one, the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $2.3 million, with the Republican State Leadership Committee spending $1.25 million.

Then in 2020, outside spending reached a record high of $5 million in the race between Jill Karofsky and incumbent Dan Kelly. The liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together spent $1.9 million. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent $1.1 million. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent $897,000. And the Koch Brothers’ group, Americans for Prosperity, spent $479,000.

matt-rothschild-2018We can expect the April 2023 race to once again break a record, as Pat Roggensack is retiring, leaving three liberals on the court and three conservatives. So whoever replaces her in that race will determine the ideological balance on the court.

That noise you hear is the avalanche of outside money that is about to pour down on Wisconsin.

Audio Commentary

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Do You Hear What I Hear

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 14 December 2022
in Wisconsin

wisconsin-senateSenator Smith writes about how the dialogue has changed between candidates, elected officials and constituents.

MADISON - As I reflect on this year and the campaign that just ended last month, I must thank the voters who showed up and cast ballots. I know not everyone reading this voted for me, but I’m grateful that enough did so I can continue to serve all of you in the Wisconsin State Senate.

It’s rare for anyone to get everything they hoped for. Elections are a triumph for some and a huge letdown for others. Many of you may be experiencing both emotions as some of the candidates you voted for won while others lost. Once campaigns end, though, it’s time to accept results and work together.

Campaigns are full of opportunity for someone like me. I enjoy meeting new people so knocking on doors is right up my alley. While I only find someone home at about 1 in 5 doors, there are enough conversations each day to give me a sense of what folks expect from their elected legislators. I look forward to continuing those conversations with my stop and talk listening sessions when the weather warms up.

Too many think they can’t trust elected officials or that their vote doesn’t matter, but your vote is precious to our democratic-republic. It isn’t easy to learn all you want to know about each person on the ballot. Especially when candidates only want you to see the positive side of themselves. It’s harder to make your choice at the polls when fewer and fewer open forums are scheduled for candidates to debate. How do you know who or what to believe if the public can’t ask the candidates questions?

tom-sieber-peopleVoters lose when they don’t have the opportunity to interact with and learn about the candidates running for elected office. Even public radio debates have changed, with individual interviews replacing traditional call-in shows where voters could ask each candidate questions. That leaves too many voters depending on ads, mail and fringe internet groups to learn only what candidates want you to know.

I often encounter confusion over state and federal offices and responsibilities. Because there’s little or no coverage of the day-to-day workings of state government, most people just don’t know what happens in Madison. We’re overshadowed by the national drama. This allows legislators to operate with very little scrutiny and accountability. So, during a campaign, it’s the best time to educate voters about what elected officials do and how we serve.

That brings me around to the duties of the branches of government. The top of the ticket gets the attention but many forget that the governor or president isn’t able to do much more than what the legislature or congress send them. The legislature determines what’s funded and by how much. The governor might negotiate using the power of the veto pen.

That’s why holding the majority in the Legislature is so valuable. Whoever holds that majority determines what bills get public hearings and votes, what committees are created and who chairs them, and even when and how often the body meets in session. I’m always struck by voters who say they are disappointed when government isn’t working, but they plan to vote for the party already in charge. Since 1994, Republicans have held the majority in our State Assembly 26 out of 28 years while also holding the Senate majority most of those sessions.

jeff-smithThose in power have drawn district lines to ensure they don’t need to worry about re-election. It’s why most elected officials don’t feel the need to show up for public forums. In turn, most elected officials don’t feel the pressure to hold public hearings or pass legislation, even on issues strongly favored by their constituents.

That’s why I offered a resolution last session to allow citizens to gather signatures to place binding referenda questions on the ballot. Elected officials shouldn’t be able to refuse action on clearly-decided issues overwhelmingly favored by voters. Citizens need to have the power.

Moving forward, I’m hopeful that more folks will stay engaged when it comes to what elected officials can do to improve our communities and the issues that matter most to Wisconsin.

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Record Amount of Outside $ in Wis!

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 10 December 2022
in Wisconsin

wdc-logoYour weekly message from Matt Rothschild at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

MADISON - Our great research director, Mike Buelow, put together a report this week on the record-shattering amount of outside money we saw here in Wisconsin in non-federal races. The amount was 50% higher than in 2018 and 5 times as much as in 2010, the year of the disastrous Citizens United decision. That’s not a coincidence!

outside-spending2010-22Mike’s report has gotten a lot of media attention in Wisconsin, including from the Associated Press and Wisconsin Public Radio. You can read the report for yourself here:

Record $93M in Spending by Outside Groups in 2022

latina-pay-2022By the way, Latina Equal Pay Day was this week, and our terrific racial equity and economic justice advocate, Iuscely Flores, took this opportunity to lay out the various biases that people of color face in the workplace, as you’ll see here:

On Latina Equal Pay Day, Stop Bias in the Workplace

human-rights-day-2022Saturday is International Human Rights Day, and I’ll be at Turner Hall in Milwaukee on a panel discussing how elections affect our human rights. If you’re in the area and are free at 10:00 a.m., it’d be great to see you there! Or register at to attend virtually, or watch on the Equal Rights Commission--MKE's Facebook page.

In any event, I hope you have a nice weekend.


Matt Rothschild
Executive Director
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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It’s Time To Move Forward Past Political Division

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 07 December 2022
in Wisconsin

evers-2019-sosSenator Smith discusses the importance of bipartisan effort and cooperation going into the 2023 Legislative Session.

MADISON - Reflecting on my two years of service in the in the Wisconsin State Assembly and four years of service in the State Senate, I notice a stark difference in the way the people’s business was handled then and now.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still intense political disagreements, but we also discussed the merits of bills during public hearings and while meeting in the halls of the Capitol. The power of a good idea pulled Republicans and Democrats together.

During the 8 years of the Walker administration, the Majority Party largely ignored the Minority Party. Harsh political fights over collective bargaining rights, redistricting, voting rights and many other issues left legislators very little appetite for bipartisanship.

Then Governor Evers was elected, and the Majority Party continued to show little interest in working across the aisle. I’ve said it. Governor Evers said it. Even Republican leaders said it - “We need to work together.” Still, the last four years has been marked by differing priorities, without the dialogue needed to resolve these conflicts.

Wisconsin has an estimated $6.6 billion dollar surplus this year. We have an amazing opportunity to reinvest this surplus in our public school system, with Governor Evers’ budget proposal adding $2 billion in investments in public schools. However, Republican leaders have different priorities, including expanding school choice statewide.

We all agree a middle class tax cut is a good idea, and Governor Evers has proposed tax cuts that would give relief to low-income families, seniors and veterans. Moving forward, I’m hoping that we can come together on a tax plan that will help all Wisconsinites prosper.

wi-senate-swearing-inImagine if Democrats and Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder advocating for a middle class tax cut at a press conference. Imagine if the Majority Party invited the Minority Party to the table to discuss how to accomplish our shared goal. The final product would be more representative of the needs of all Wisconsinites.

Unfortunately, there’s still some reluctance in really working together or perhaps there’s uncertainty as to where we start. I have a few ideas on what we can do first.

As Senators and Representatives we bring our unique experiences and differing opinions to the job. Every new session offers us an opportunity to start a productive dialogue to learn from each other. We can’t let our own bias and partisanship get in the way of doing what’s right.

jeff-smithWhen I was elected four years ago to represent District 31 in the State Senate, I made a commitment with my team to meet with Democratic and Republican legislators in the Assembly and the Senate. Four years on, I’m renewing that commitment. I’ll take this time to listen to their ideas and learn more about the communities they represent.

Having these conversations to acknowledge our differences and similarities is the first step for establishing mutual respect. These relationships can build trust so we can, again, make the right decisions for the future of our state.

A team’s success begins and ends with trust in each other. As a lifelong sports fan and former high school sports participant (can’t honestly say I was a star athlete, but I tried), I know how much further we get when we work as a team.

I’ve observed Republicans finding Democrats who might add their name next to theirs as co-authors of their bills. That’s a good step, but adding names is not enough; it’s about adding good ideas too. As legislators, we need to prioritize cooperative input and let the power of a good idea take root in our Legislature.

We have an opportunity to turn the page and heal the political divisions. Progress will happen once we put away the political scorecards and move forward.

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Record $93M in Spending by Outside Groups in Wis in 2022

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
User is currently offline
on Monday, 05 December 2022
in Wisconsin

money-behind-politicsReport finds spending by special interest groups in this fall’s legislative races in Wisconsin and for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer shattered the old record by 50 percent.

MADISON - Spending by special interest groups in this fall’s legislative races in Wisconsin and for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer shattered the old record by 50 percent, a preliminary review by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found.

The $93.01 million spent in 2022 by outside groups crushed the previous record $61.86 million set in 2018 for mid-term fall races that also featured both legislative and statewide contests in Wisconsin. And the 2022 spending figure was 154 percent higher than the $36.63 million spent by outside groups in 2014 and nearly five times higher than the $18.9 million spent on Wisconsin legislative and statewide races in 2010. (See chart below.)


None of these spending figures includes outside group spending in federal races for the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.

The lion’s share of the outside money in 2022 – $78.9 million – was spent on the governor’s race.

Six dozen special interest groups threw their money around to praise or smear candidates.

Thirty-five groups spent $48.25 million to benefit Republicans, 36 groups spent $44.06 million to benefit Democrats, and one group spent $686,660 to bolster the independent candidate for governor.

These electioneering groups fall into two categories – express advocacy groups and phony issue ad groups. Express advocacy groups, which make independent expenditures, must report their spending to the state. That’s because their broadcast and online advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities use the magic words “vote for” or “vote against” or their equivalents.

Phony issue ad groups, which can also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, do not have to report their spending because of federal court decisions and lax campaign finance laws. These groups smear or praise candidates but without explicitly telling viewers who to vote for or against.

The top-spending groups, which doled out all or most of their money in the governor’s race, were:

Democratic Governors Association spent an estimated $20.1 million using a phony issue ad group called the Alliance for Common Sense which blanketed the airwaves with television ads attacking GOP candidate for governor Tim Michels on education, abortion, guns, and media reports about sexual harassment complaints filed by female employees of his construction company;

Republican Governors Association spent an estimated $15.3 million using three entities – Right Direction Wisconsin PACACC Wisconsin 2022 PAC, and State Solutions – mostly on television ads throughout the state that attacked Evers on crime and tax issues from July until Election Day;

A Better Wisconsin Together spent an estimated $6.8 million using an express advocacy group and an issue ad group with nearly the same name, making it particularly difficult to track spending by the issue ad group because it can keep its spending secret. All told, A Better Wisconsin Together spent money on television and digital advertising in 23 legislative races to support Democratic candidates, as well as the contests for governor to back Evers and attorney general to support incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul;

Americans for Prosperity spent $6.53 million on a host of electioneering activities, including canvassing, mailings, door hangers, and digital and radio ads to support Michels, GOP attorney general candidate Adam Jarchow, and Republican candidates in 19 legislative races;

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) spent an estimated $4.52 million using an issue ad group and an express advocacy group . Most of WMC’s issue ad spending was for television advertising that backed Republicans and smeared Democrats in the race for governor and two legislative contests. The group’s ads in the governor’s race attacked Evers on education, crime, and tax issues, and also blamed the incumbent for inflation. Early in the year, WMC spent about $25,000 on a digital ad to support GOP candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who lost to Michels in the August primary.

To see how much was spent by all of the outside groups involved in Wisconsin’s 2022 fall legislative and statewide races, please see the table below. For more information about the groups and their electioneering activities, please visit our Hijacking Campaign 2022 feature and click on their names.

A final report on the total cost of this year’s legislative and statewide elections will be issued early next year after the groups and candidates file amendments and year-end fundraising and spending reports.

Spending by Electioneering Groups in the 2022 Fall Elections

Alliance for Common Sense (Democratic Governors Association)* $20,150,000
Right Direction Wisconsin PAC (Republican Governors Association) $9,293,038
A Better Wisconsin Together** $6,794,866
Americans for Prosperity $6,531,490
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce** $4,524,998
Fighting for Wisconsin $4,378,114
ACC Wisconsin 2022 PAC (Republican Governors Association) $4,025,754
Wisconsin Conservation Voters IE Committee $3,818,779
Club for Growth Action $3,552,571
Future Forward USA Action* $3,400,000
Wisconsin Freedom PAC (Republican Attorneys General Association) $3,114,213
Freedom Wisconsin PAC $2,564,000
State Solutions (Republican Governors Association)* $2,000,000
DAGA People’s Lawyer Project (Democratic Attorneys General Association) $1,899,564
Sunrise in America Political Fund $1,866,844
The Wisconsin Initiative* $1,700,000
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin Political Fund $1,316,721
Republican Accountability PAC $992,584
Restoration PAC $935,000
Wisconsin RINO Hunters $686,660
American Federation for Children IE Committee $678,995
Wisconsin Alliance for Reform* $600,000
Jobs First Coalition Political Fund $529,201
Voces de la Frontera Action $463,892
National Rifle Association (NRA) Political Victory Fund $423,653
Badger Values PAC $407,483
Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund $407,279
For Our Future $390,595
Power to the Polls Wisconsin $389,443
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Wisconsin State Council $379,647
WFP National PAC (Work Families Party) $334,575
Women Speak Out PAC $322,872
Wisconsin Realtors Political Fund $320,000
Family Friendly Action PAC $290,412
Republican State Leadership Committee $284,192
Project Democracy $278,650
The Lincoln Project $254,450
American Principles Project PAC $227,428
Wisconsin Family Action $225,875
Election Integrity PAC $208,344
Speak Free or Die $155,000
Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) PAC $141,688
BlackPAC $136,045
Make Liberty Win $135,491
New Prosperity Foundation $111,964
Working America $109,190
Empower Wisconsin* $100,000
American Majority Action $94,736
Human Rights Campaign Equality Votes PAC $93,626
American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Working Families Fund $92,585
New Prosperity Foundation IE Committee $85,500
Volunteers for Agriculture (Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation) $84,058
National Nurses United for Patient Protection $69,427
WorkMoney Inc. $68,939
Free and Fair Elections USA $67,740
Blue Sky Waukesha $61,215
Community Change Voters $61,149
NextGen Climate Action Committee $60,228
Leaders Igniting Transformation Action Fund $56,167
Patriots for Wisconsin $49,983
SEIU Committee on Political Education $49,606
Citizens Action of Wisconsin $45,691
Progress North $44,331
AFT-Wisconsin (American Federation of Teachers) $18,612
Rise, Inc. $15,373
Organizing Empowerment PAC $14,000
Rising Leaders PAC $10,000
Democratic Party of Wisconsin $5,560
Gun Rights America $4,701
Wisconsin Right to Life PAC $1,360
TOTAL $93,006,147


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