Smear Groups, Candidates Spent $5.4 Million On Supreme Court Race

Special interest group spending favored incumbent $2.7 million versus $1.8 million

April 19, 2011

Madison – Nearly three dozen special interest groups and four candidates spent about $5.4 million on the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race mostly on volleys of negative radio and television advertisements, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Thirty-five outside groups doled out $4.5 million in the two months before the April 5 general election between incumbent Justice David Prosser and his challenger, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg. The groups represented business, labor, abortion, education, environmental, gun and liberal and conservative ideological interests, among others, and hailed from inside and outside the state, including Washington D.C., Virginia and Vermont.

The special interest groups spent an estimated $2.7 million to support Prosser and $1.8 million to back Kloppenburg.

Leading the smear groups was the Greater Wisconsin Committee which spent nearly $1.7 million to support Kloppenburg. The Madison-based group has been a leading spender on outside electioneering activities in most partisan races for statewide office and the legislature and in nonpartisan state Supreme Court races since it was created in 2004 to support Democratic candidates.

Greater Wisconsin sponsored web ads, phone banks and four television ads to support Kloppenburg. One of the group’s worst ads condemned Prosser for not prosecuting a Catholic priest in Green Bay accused of sexually abusing two boys when Prosser was Outagamie County district attorney in the late 1970s.

Some of Greater Wisconsin’s other ads tied Prosser to the policies of newly elected GOP Governor Scott Walker who has been criticized for his efforts to abolish most public employee collective bargaining rights, provide tax cuts and regulatory breaks for corporations and other wealthy special interests and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to public schools and medical assistance programs.

After Greater Wisconsin, the next four special interest groups doled out a combined $2.65 million to back Prosser. His largest single outside supporter was Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group and one of the most powerful players in Wisconsin politics. Like Greater Wisconsin, the business group has spent millions of dollars in recent years on outside electioneering activities, but Wisconsin Manufacturers supports Republican and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

WMC spent nearly $1.1 million in the race to create and air two television ads. One of the ads used audio clips of Kloppenburg in which she says being tough on crime was not her message. The ad told listeners “being weak on criminals is dangerous for Wisconsin families,” and resembled tough-on-crime ads sponsored by the group in past Supreme Court races that distort most of the cases and decisions rendered by the state’s high court.

Rounding out Prosser’s top outside supporters were three ideological groups that generally back Republican or conservative candidates for state or federal offices:

  • Citizens for a Strong America, a Beaver Dam-based group with ties to the tea party movement and Americans for Prosperity that uses a postal box as its address, which spent an estimated $985,000. The group sponsored two television ads. One ad was critical of Kloppenburg because she sued businesses and farmers in court as part of her job as an assistant state attorney general. The other ad featured one of the victims in the priest sex abuse case handled by Prosser. The victim criticized Greater Wisconsin for running the anti-Prosser ad and Kloppenburg for not asking the group to pull it.
  • Club for Growth Wisconsin, the state arm of the national Club for Growth that backs conservative Republicans for federal offices, which spent an estimated $520,000. The group sponsored a television ad and a radio ad. The television ad aired a week before the February 15 primary, lauding Prosser for his work on the court. The radio ad criticized Kloppenburg for having no previous experience as a judge.
  • Tea Party Express, which was created in 2009 by a California political action committee and now backs conservative causes and candidates for state and federal offices, which spent about $70,000. The group ran a television ad claiming Kloppenburg would be a pawn of union bosses if she was elected to the court, and that she had been passed over before to fill some open state and federal judgeships.

The Democracy Campaign’s spending estimates for outside special interest groups are conservative because they do not include ads aired on local cable networks not carried by satellite.

The four candidates for Supreme Court which were narrowed to Prosser and Kloppenburg in the February 15 primary spent a combined $913,238 through March 31. Prosser spent $406,283 and Kloppenburg $351,259. Final candidate fundraising and spending reports due in July will add only about $100,000 in new spending – at most – because their fundraising totaled about $1.08 million due to fundraising limits placed on three of the four candidates who accepted public financing.

The cost of this year’s Supreme Court race falls short of the record $5.96 million spent in the 2008 high court race as well as the $5.8 million spent in the 2007 Supreme Court race.

For more information about the candidates and the outside special interests involved in the 2011 Supreme Court race please visit the “Hijacking Justice 2011” feature.