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Fundraising gap widens in Supreme Court race

ImageMoney may not be everything, but it certainly counts for something, especially when it comes to campaign fundraising in a state Supreme Court race.

Through the first month of 2009, Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson has raised almost 20 times more money than her opponent, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy R. Koschnick.

According to pre-primary finance reports filed by each candidate with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, Abrahamson has received more than $940,000 in contributions since July 2008 and donations prior to that time have pushed her total to more than $1 million.

Through Feb. 2, Koschnick reported approximately $53,000 in contributions, with more than $38,000 coming since Jan. 1.

Despite the fundraising disparity, Koschnick’s advisor Seamus Flaherty said they are not banking on the same conservative special interest group spending that injected millions supporting the campaigns of Justices Annette K. Ziegler and Justice Michael J. Gableman.

“We believe Judge Koschnick has the record and philosophy that appeal to the voters,” Flaherty said. “That has been shown to be the case election after election.”

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) Executive Director Michael McCabe said at this point, there is little that distinguishes Koschnick from Gableman or Ziegler in terms of judicial philosophy, but the current candidate could struggle to reach voters without substantial funding.

“Koschnick stands no chance of being known by people if he only is only able to raise tens of thousands of dollars and these outside groups don’t weigh in heavily,” McCabe.

“So are we electing justices only if they have the backing of a handful of wealthy interest groups?”

While third-party interest groups have entered the last two elections after the primary, several traditionally conservative organizations said they do not plan to invest in the current race, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), Club for Growth Wisconsin and Coalition of American Families.

“Those are three of the four groups that did the most advertising last year and they all said they are going to sit this race out,” McCabe said. “There is a chance we won’t see the level of special interest we saw during the last two elections, but it is too early to say.”

According to WDC, the three groups combined to spend more than $1.7 million in support of current Justice Michael J. Gableman during last year’s race and WMC invested approximately $2.2 in Justice Annette K. Ziegler’s campaign in 2007.

Flaherty said Koschnick expects to raise enough money to get his message out to voters.

But he also said interest group participation is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the context.

“The judge is a believer in First Amendment rights and everyone should have their say; in fact it should be encouraged,” Flaherty said. “It depends on the context, and if anyone gets involved, I hope they keep it clean.”

Abrahamson’s advisor Heather Colburn did not condemn third-party participation either.

Despite the absence of special interest advertising at this point and statements from several groups that they will not participate in this year’s race, she said outside spending could still come into play.

She expects that it is not a matter of if, but when outside groups get involved in this year’s race, which is one reason why the chief has been raising money at a record pace.

She did not indicate that their fundraising was necessary to compete with Koschnick’s campaign money, rather to combat possible third-party advertising.

“The last two Supreme Court elections are examples of what’s possible,” Colburn said.

“That is one part of the campaign we cannot control, but I do expect out-of-state special interest groups to spend between two and five million.”

Colburn also said the money was important to help Abrahamson effectively campaign throughout Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

Ten years ago, before third-party expenditures escalated to the levels of the last two elections, Abrahamson still raised more than $700,000 in what was the most expensive race at the time. In 1999, the chief justice faced a challenge from Green Bay attorney Sharren B. Rose.

Colburn said she is unaware of whether or not any third-party groups will spend money in support of Abrahamson.

Last year the Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC) was the primary supporter of incumbent Justice Louis B. Butler Jr. spending more than $1.4 million on “issue ads.”

Officials from GWC could not be reached for comment on whether the group plans to invest in this year’s race.

But if Abrahamson ends up as the only candidate with third-party support, given her personal fundraising advantage over Koschnick, McCabe said it could tarnish her image.

“If GWC spends heavily and there is no countering effect, it could be seen as piling on,” McCabe said.

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