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NO EXCEPTION: Outside money pours into high court race

(Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

(Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet’s winning an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 3 may have bucked some trends. But measured by the spending the race brought in from outside groups, it was no exception.

Dallet defeated Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Michael Screnock by an 11.5 percentage-point margin, according to unofficial results. Dallet took 56 percent of the vote, giving her a 10-year term in a seat now held by Justice Michael Gableman, who decided not to run again.

More than 995,000 voters out of nearly 4.7 million voting-age adults went to the polls to cast ballots. It was the highest turnout seen in a spring election since 2011, when a Supreme Court race came in the middle of massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions. That election, which pitted the incumbent Justice David Prosser against the Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, netted a 34 percent turnout. Prosser, like most incumbent justices do, kept his seat.

Dallet’s victory will narrow the court’s conservative majority from 5-2 to 4-3, even as it bucked a trend that saw liberal-leaning candidates losing their bids for open spots on the high court. Her victory also came in the wake of a surprising Democratic win in January in a special election for a state Senate seat that Republicans had held for 17 years.

Yet, even with its unusual outcome, the spring election was similar to other recent contests in at least one way: It was the occasion of a great deal of electoral spending, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending in big state races.

By the organization’s count, outside groups spent more than $3 million in the days leading up to the election on April 3.  That amount was in line with the $3.4 million that outside groups spent in the 2016 Supreme Court contest between the incumbent Justice Rebecca Dallet and Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg.

The record for spending by outside groups was set in the 2008 race between Justice Louis Butler and now-Justice Michael Gableman. That race saw $4.8 million worth of outside spending.

The organizations that topped the charts in outside spending in the April 3 race were also the usual suspects, noted Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The top Democratic-leaning spender in the April election was the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which poured in about $1.2 million. The top Republican-leaning spender was Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent more than $1.2 million.

What was unusual, however, was the fact that some of the money from outside Democratic national groups came in the form of independent expenditures, Rothschild said.

Independent expenditures involve spending to support or oppose a candidate without any coordination with the candidate. The resulting ads usually urge voters to vote for or against a candidate and must show the name of whatever organization is paying for the message.

Eric Holder’s group,  the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, spent $165,000 and the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s organization, For Our Future, spent $157,801 – all in the form of independent expenditures.

On the Republican side, the NRA had $44,160 worth of independent expenditures and American Majority Action had about $7,000 worth.

Even more concerning than independent expenditures, Rothschild said, is issue-advocacy spending. Unlike ads from independent groups, issue ads don’t explicitly urge voters to vote for one particular candidate and are not regulated.  Groups are also not required to disclose where they got the money they use to pay for issue-advocacy advertisements.

Because of the tangled reporting laws, it’s no easy task to estimate how much money was spent in a given race. Rothschild and his team can’t do it without making calls to individual media stations around the state.

He noted that since the last Supreme Court election, Republicans’ spending has centered primarily on issue-advocacy ads. Democratic groups, meanwhile, have essentially split their spending between issue advocacy and independent expenditures.

As for what the candidates themselves spent, the final numbers won’t be in until July. But, by March 30, Dallet had spent more than $600,000 and Screnock more than $734,000, according to Rothschild’s group’s count. Also, Dallet outraised Screnock by about $206,000.

There’s nothing unusual about that. Rothschild said the more remarkable numbers are those showing what each political party spent. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin spent nothing, whereas the state and local Republican Party of Wisconsin spent between $300,000 and $400,000, mostly in in-kind contributions.  That’s a fifth of what WMC spent.

“So the outside groups are dominating the field here still,” Rothschild said. “The major two outside groups – on both sides – spent more than the candidate committees themselves spent and way more than the parties themselves. The elections increasingly – at least the advertising for the elections — are no longer in the candidate’s hand or the parties’ hands. It’s in the hands of these outside groups.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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