Gavel Grab

'Deluge' of WI Special Interest Spending Ahead?

Two judicial candidates who opted for public campaign financing, an incumbent and a challenger, will square off on the April 5 general election ballot for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat as a result of Tuesday’s primary vote.

Will Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg see a “deluge of special interest spending” in their general election contest? The headline for a Madison Capital Times article raised that possibility, given a current 4-3 philosophical divide on the court and a hot political climate.

In the primary contest, the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth accounted for $408,000 of the approximately $591,00 spent on TV ads, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Club’s ads supported Justice Prosser, although they stopped short of urging a vote for him. More independent expenditures are likely, the Capital Times reported:

“With the balance of the court at stake — it’s currently split 4-3 split in favor of conservatives — and the potential for inflamed liberal emotions as a result of the current epic struggle between Gov. Scott Walker and public employees, there will likely be much more to come.

“We could see a massive special interest spending spree, just like the one that beat out liberal incumbent Louis Butler in 2008. In that race, Butler and Michael Gableman together spent $1.18 million, while special interests spent $4.8 million.”

The two candidates knocked out by the primary were Marla Stephens, who did not take public financing, and Joel Winnig, who did. Justice Prosser and candidate Kloppenburg, meanwhile, have given sharply different reasons for seeking public financing under a new Wisconsin law permitting it for state Supreme Court candidates.

“If I had not accepted the public financing scheme I would have been roasted alive,” Justice Prosser said.

“People do not want an election driven by outside special interests,” said Kloppenburg, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article. “People really want public financing.” It is the first Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign to come under the public financing law.

Justice Prosser has been described as a conservative, and Kloppenburg, an assistant state attorney general, as a liberal (see Gavel Grab).

“The level of spending in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election – on TV and otherwise – will increase before the general election in April,” said Adam Skaggs, counsel at the Brennan Center.  “But initial reporting through the primary campaign shows that all three publicly funded candidates have had sufficient funds to mount competitive races.”

Kloppenburg and Prosser will get another $300,000 each in public funds for the general election.

That public support could increase if third-party groups run certain kinds of political advertising. Advertising earlier by the  Club for Growth, however, was not found by state election officials to trigger distribution of extra public funds to Justice Prosser’s opponent, a Journal Sentinel article reported. The ad did not trigger additional funding because it stopped short of using such words as “vote for,” “support,” or “elect,” a state official told the newspaper.

“There’s a danger that outside interest groups could weigh in heavily in this race and leave the candidates not in a position to really respond to it,”  Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign told Gavel Grab. “I think the likelihood is that groups will weigh in. Which groups and to what extent, that is difficult to predict.”

The Brennan Center and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are partner groups of the Justice at Stake Campaign.

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