Nasty Supreme Court Race Cost Record $6 Million

Candidates were outspent $4 to $1 by outside special interests

July 22, 2008

Madison - The 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court race cost $5.96 million, including a record $4.8 million by outside special interest groups that secretly raised and spent most of that money on negative ads about the candidates, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

The latest campaign finance reports filed by the two candidates show they were outspent $4 to $1 by the outside electioneering groups. Candidates Michael Gableman and incumbent Justice Louis Butler spent a combined $1.18 million in the race. Gableman won the April 1 contest, becoming the first challenger to beat an incumbent state Supreme Court justice in about 40 years.

Spending by special interest groups consisted of those that made disclosed independent expenditures totaling $548,081 and phony issue ad groups that refused to disclose how they raised and spent $4.2 million on their activities. Both types of special interest electioneering spending were records for a state Supreme Court race.

The total cost of this year’s race topped the previous record spent in the 2007 Supreme Court race when the candidates and outside special interest groups spent just over $5.8 million – an estimated $3.1 million by special interests and $2.71 million by the candidates.

Leading the phony issue ad groups in the 2008 race was Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group which spent nearly $1.8 million mostly on television ads that supported Gableman or disparaged Butler. This follows an estimated $2.2 million they spent in the 2007 Supreme Court race to back Annette Ziegler, who won. In addition to the two court races, WMC has secretly raised and spent millions of dollars in partisan statewide and legislative races since 2002, mostly to back Republican candidates.

WMC has lost some of its members and come under public fire since helping elect Gableman to the court in part after Epic Systems, a pioneering high-technology company, said it does not want to do business with vendors who are WMC members because of the group’s activities in the court race.

The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a secretive Milwaukee-based group, spent nearly $1.5 million mostly on television advertising that derided Gableman and supported Butler. The group sponsored a half dozen television ads most of which questioned Gableman’s ethics and competence when he held jobs as a circuit court judge and a district attorney. In addition to their phony issue ad spending, Greater Wisconsin’s political action committee spent $104,823 on independent expenditures on advertising in the race.

In the 2007 Supreme Court race, the group unsuccessfully spent an estimated $400,000 to support Linda Clifford. Formed in 2004, Greater Wisconsin has spent millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates for other statewide office and the legislature.

Two other phony issue ad groups – the Coalition for America’s Families and Club for Growth Wisconsin – secretly raised and spent just under $1 million combined mostly on television and radio ads to support Gableman. In the 2007 high court race, Club for Growth spent an estimated $400,000 to back Ziegler.

The biggest spender among the independent expenditure groups was the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union and one of the biggest backers of Democratic candidates in other statewide and legislative races for the past several years. WEAC spent $349,325 – most of it on one of the most lurid ads in the campaign accusing Gableman of handing out lenient sentences as a judge to convicted child sex offenders.

Rounding out the top three independent expenditure groups behind WEAC and the Greater Wisconsin PAC’s $104,823 was the National Rifle Association which spent $73,458 on postcards to support Gableman.

For more details about the spending and outside electioneering activities of these groups, please visit WDC’s Hijacking Justice 2008 feature.

Phony issue ad groups are not required to disclose how they raise their money even if it is from a corporation or a labor union’s treasury. Direct contributions to candidates from those sources have been illegal in Wisconsin for more than a century. The reason WMC, Greater Wisconsin and other phony issue ad groups do not have to report their sources of fundraising and spending like candidates, political parties and independent expenditure groups is because their advertisements, mailers and other electioneering activities do not explicitly tell people who to vote for even though their smear campaigns clearly show which candidate they want voters to support.

Independent expenditure groups must publicly disclose their fundraising and spending because their advertisements and other outside electioneering activities clearly say who to vote for.