The question of whether or not special interest groups would get involved in this year’s Supreme Court race has been answered.
Milwaukee-based Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC) started airing an “issue ad” on March 24, exactly two weeks before the spring election.
The 30-second spot initially lauds incumbent Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson for her protection of victims and families, but later alleges that Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy R. Koschnick sides with corporate interests and against victims.
The fact that third parties eventually entered the fray came as no surprise to advisors for both candidates, who suggest more of those ads could be forthcoming.
But observers were somewhat surprised that the first blow was struck by an organization supporting Abrahamson, given she has a significant fundraising advantage and has been the only candidate to run television and radio ads at this point.
“It seems a bit odd and maybe a little overkill for a group like GWC to enter the campaign at this point,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC).
“The chief has raised over $1 million and has been running a lot of her own ads compared to her opponent who has raised very little money and not really shown the ability to get his message out.”
The McCabe’s group reports that GWC has spent $1.85 million on issue ads during the last two state Supreme Court elections in support of Madison attorney Linda Clifford and former Justice Louis B. Butler Jr.
Despite the fact that both Clifford and Butler were defeated, Abrahamson’s campaign advisor Heather Colburn said she did not expect the ad will have a negative impact on the clean campaign being run by the chief.
“I don’t think this will [damage] our efforts,” Colburn said. “What we’re going to continue to do is get out with a positive message and tell voters who Shirley Abrahamson is.”
However, Koschnick’s campaign advisor Seamus Flaherty said the GWC ad makes “unsubstantiated” claims about the candidate’s record and he referred to the organization as “sleaze merchants” doing Abrahamson’s “dirty work.”
He also called on Abrahamson to refute the claims made in the spot. The Associated Press reported that neither the ad nor additional materials cited actual court rulings where Koschnick sided with “corporate special interests, the wealthy and powerful and against victims.”
Colburn said Abrahamson had no plans to respond to the GWC ad or its content.
“If that’s the case, I would think that’s very unbecoming of the chief and her campaign,” Flaherty said.
Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee Chairman Thomas J. Basting Sr., could not be reached for comment before deadline on whether the election watchdog group plans to address the content of the ad.
McCabe suggested that even if Abrahamson responds to the spot, it won’t make a difference to the GWC or any other groups that may still be planning on running attack ads.
“I think if any candidate is uncomfortable with the activities of outside groups they need to go on the record and express their dislike,” McCabe said. “But groups have their own agendas and any response from Abrahamson will not be taken to heart by WMC.”
Regardless of whether Abrahamson denounces the ad, McCabe said it will have an impact on the April 7 election.
But it remains to be seen if the ad will hurt or help her campaign, he said.
“It’s unusual to see all the ads on one side, which makes me wonder if there is not some activity that will bubble to the surface,” McCabe said. “Otherwise, it is hard to understand this.”
Colburn said it is “quite possible” a group supporting Koschnick could respond in the coming days to the GWC ad.
But several conservative business groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), which spent almost $4 million supporting the winners of the last two Supreme Court races announced early on that they would not be part of the 2009 election.
Flaherty said he had no knowledge of any interest groups running ads on behalf of Koschnick, but suggested that a non-response from Abrahamson to the GWC spot would be viewed as an invitation for other groups to get involved in the race.
“Ads like this [GWC], especially one that is so blatantly untrue, could inspire people to get involved on either side,” Flaherty said, “If there is no reaction from the chief, you could see a pile on.”
Michelle McGrorty, executive director of GWC, did not return phone messages seeking comment prior to deadline.
If there is no response from a group supporting Koschnick and depending on how the public interprets the GWC ad, McCabe said there could be a danger to Abrahamson.
“There is always the possibility it can backfire on a candidate,” McCabe said. “That’s one reason why candidates are very uneasy about having no control over messages because they can either be helped or hurt by those ads.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.