Once again, a statewide race sets a record for most expensive in Wisconsin history as campaign cash pours into the state.
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
The final major campaign finance reports before the April 4 election for Wisconsin Supreme Court were due Monday, and they showed striking differences between the two candidates.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the left-wing candidate, reported raising more than $13 million so far in 2023, including more than $12 million in the last six weeks alone. Her right-wing opponent, former Justice Daniel Kelly, reported raising just $2 million in the last six weeks, and a total of about $2.3 million in 2023.
That money is getting spent mainly on advertisements for TV, radio, print and the web.
On the independent spending side, the right is winning, though with a much smaller margin. Organizations like Super Political Action Committees, also known as Super PACs, which are banned from coordinating with the campaigns but can raise and spend unlimited amounts, have spent $12.3 million supporting Kelly or opposing Protasiewicz, while groups supporting Protasiewicz or opposing Kelly have spent about $10.2 million, according to estimates from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The contest set the record for most expensive Wisconsin Supreme Court race ever at the end of February, and the money keeps pouring in.
Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks political spending in the state, credited Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler with continuing his recent, successful run of overseeing huge fundraising for the party and its candidates. Rothschild also noted that billionaire right-wing donor Richard Uihlein, founder and owner of the shipping supplies company ULINE, continues to inject millions into Super PACs running political ads in Wisconsin.
“It’s turning into a race between how fast Ben Wikler can speed dial multi-millionaires on his side versus how fast Richard Uihlein can transfer funds electronically into the PACs that he controls,” Rothschild said.
“That’s really not how our democracy is supposed to operate,” he continued. “The voices of average citizens in Wisconsin are being drowned out by all this money on both sides. The money from outside Wisconsin raises the question as to whether we really have self-rule here.”
The race has attracted so much money in part because the state Supreme Court will likely be deciding huge issues soon, such as the legality of abortion in Wisconsin, as well as the legality of the redistricting process.
Kelly has received $20,000 — the maximum donation allowed by state law to a Supreme Court candidate — from both Diane Hendricks and her daughter Kim Hendricks, the Beloit-area billionaire family who owns and runs ABC Supply, from both Richard Uihlein and his wife Liz, from both Rite-Hite CEO Michael White and his wife Cathy, and from Louis and Michelle Gentine, co-owners of Sargento Foods, as well as current Sargento CEO Louie Gentine. John Schlifske, CEO of Northwestern Mutual, and his wife Kim, each gave Kelly the maximum too.
Protasiewicz has received the maximum $20,000 from a much longer list of donors including former Milwaukee Bucks owner and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, Schlitz heir and Milwaukee-area philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, major Democratic donor Karla Jurvetson and from several members of the wealthy Milwaukee-area Lubar family.
But about $8 million of Protasiewicz’s total campaign haul has come from one source: the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
The million-dollar loophole
In what has become a regular occurrence, extremely wealthy people from inside and outside the state are also dumping huge sums of cash into the state’s political parties, the bulk of it to the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
Loopholes in state campaign finance law allow individuals to make unlimited donations to political parties, circumventing the limits on giving directly to candidates. The loopholes also allow political parties to turn around and give unlimited donations to candidates. That creates a firehose of cash from billionaires to candidates.
Reid Hoffman, who founded LinkedIn and PayPal, wrote a check in January to the Wisconsin Democratic Party for $2 million. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose family owns Hyatt Hotels, and the investor and major liberal donor George Soros, each wrote a check to the Wisconsin Democratic Party for $1 million.
The largest donors to the Republican Party of Wisconsin this year start with Liz Uihlein, who has given the party $500,000, David Herro, an investment manager from Miami Beach who has given $150,000, and Louis Gentine of Sargento Foods, who has given $100,000.
Democrats, gerrymandered by Republicans into weak minorities in the Wisconsin State Legislature, have offered bills that would close the loopholes and place limits on donations to and from political parties, but Republicans in the majority have ignored them.
So Democrats in Wisconsin have learned to play by the new rules created by Republicans, and are now winning, at least in the fundraising game.
That’s concerning to some. And not just Republicans.
“I hope the Democrats don’t learn the wrong lesson from this race,” Rothschild said. “At the moment, they are beating the Republicans at Republicans’ own game. Long term, there are more billionaires and multi-millionaires on the conservative side. At some point, Democrats aren’t going to be able to keep winning this money chase from the big donors. Even if they are, we need fundamental campaign finance reform so the voices of regular citizens in Wisconsin aren’t being drowned out.”
Donors who have given the max to Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, left-wing candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court
|BURNS, TIMOTHY W||MIDDLETON||WI||ATTORNEY||$20,000|
|BURNSTEIN, CLIFFORD||NEW YORK||NY||$20,000|
|CONNELL, WILLIAM J (LIAM)||LAKE FOREST||IL||RETIRED||$20,000|
|DOW, ABIGAIL||TULSA||OK||INSTRUCTIONAL COACH||$20,000|
|DOW, RACHEL||TULSA||OK||HEALTH EDUCATOR||$20,000|
|EGERMAN, JOANNE||WESTON||MA||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|EGERMAN, PAUL||WESTON||MA||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|ERDMAN, MARY||MADISON||WI||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|ESCOBAR, MARTHA||NEW YORK||NY||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|EYCHANER, FRED J||CHICAGO||IL||PHILANTHROPIST||$20,000|
|FOWLER, AMY GOLDMAN||RHINEBECK||NY||AUTHOR||$20,000|
|GINSBURG, HANA||NEW YORK||NY||CONCERT DANCER||$20,000|
|GUND, AGNES||NEW YORK||NY||RETIRED||$20,000|
|HASELOW, JUSTINE P||EDINA||MN||RETIRED||$20,000|
|HASELOW, ROBERT E||EDINA||MN||MD PRESIDENT||$20,000|
|HEISING, MARK W||ATHERTON||CA||INVESTOR||$20,000|
|JURVETSON, KARLA TINKLENBERG||LOS ALTOS||CA||PHYSICIAN||$20,000|
|KOHL, HERBERT H (HERB)||MILWAUKEE||WI||PHILANTHROPIST||$20,000|
|LAINER, LEE||LOS ANGELES||CA||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|LAINER, LUIS||LOS ANGELES||CA||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|LAUFER, ERIC||NEW YORK||NY||EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|LAWSON, ERICA F||SAN FRANCISCO||CA||PHYSICIAN||$20,000|
|LAWSON, JEFFREY||SAN FRANCISCO||CA||CEO||$20,000|
|LEHOCZKY, SANDOR||NEW YORK||NY||MANAGING DIRECTOR/FINANCE||$20,000|
|LUBAR, MADELEINE KELLY||MILWAUKEE||WI||COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER||$20,000|
|LUBAR, MARIANNE S||RIVER HILLS||WI||HOMEMAKER||$20,000|
|LUBAR, SHELDON B||RIVER HILLS||WI||CHAIRMAN||$20,000|
|LYNN, SOPHIA||MCLEAN||VA||EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR||$20,000|
|MCCLAVE, JAMES||NEW YORK||NY||TRADER||$20,000|
|MESSINGER, ALIDA ROCKEFELLER||AFTON||MN||COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER||$20,000|
|MEYER, GWENDOLYN SONTHEIM||MINNETONKA||MN||INVESTOR||$20,000|
|MILLER, JOHN CHARLES||KOHLER||WI||NONE||$20,000|
|MILLER, JOHN W||KOHLER||WI||PRINCIPAL||$20,000|
|MINSKY-PRIMUS, LISA S||NEW YORK||NY||PHYSICIAN||$20,000|
|MINSKY, YARON||NEW YORK||NY||FINANCE||$20,000|
|PIGOTT, GAYE T||SEATTLE||WA||HOMEMAKER||$20,000|
|RANDALL, GIOVANNA||NEW YORK||NY||EMPLOYED||$20,000|
|ROLFS, PAMELA (PAM)||MIDDLETON||WI||ATTORNEY||$20,000|
|SCHUSTERMAN, LYNN J||TULSA||OK||RETIRED||$20,000|
|SCHUSTERMAN, STACY HELEN||TULSA||OK||EXECUTIVE||$20,000|
|SELL, GREGORY J||FRANKLIN||WI||ATTORNEY||$20,000|
|SIMONS, ELIZABETH DIANE (LIZ)||ATHERTON||CA||RETIRED||$20,000|
|SNOWDON, JR, TED W.||NEW YORK||NY||THEATRICAL PRODUCER||$20,000|
|STRYKER, PAT||FORT COLLINS||CO||PHILANTHROPIST||$20,000|
|UIHLEIN, LYNDE B||MILWAUKEE||WI||INVESTOR||$20,000|
|WOLFE, THOMAS R.||MADISON||WI||NOT EMPLOYED||$20,000|
Donors who have given the max to former Justice Daniel Kelly, right-wing candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court
|FOX, BRENT A||JANESVILLE||WI||MANAGER||$20,000|
|GENTINE, LOUIS||ELKHART LAKE||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|GENTINE, MICHELLE||ELKHART LAKE||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|HENDRICKS, DIANE M||BELOIT||WI||CHAIRMAN||$20,000|
|HENDRICKS, KIMBERLEE K (KIM)||JANESVILLE||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|KIEFFER, LYNN R||PRINCETON||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|KIEFFER, STEPHEN G||PRINCETON||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|MINAHAN, DANIEL J||FOX POINT||WI||CEO||$20,000|
|MINAHAN, SUSAN||FOX POINT||WI||HOMEMAKER||$20,000|
|NELSON, AMY||OCONOMOWOC||WI||BUSINESS OWNER||$20,000|
|SCHLIFKE, JOHN||ELM GROVE||WI||EXECUTIVE||$20,000|
|SCHLIFKE, KIM||ELM GROVE||WI||HOMEMAKER||$20,000|
|SCHLOEMER, JAMES H.||MENOMONEE FALLS||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|SHAFFER, JOHN||CHICAGO||IL||BUSUINESS OWNER||$20,000|
|UIHLEIN, ELIZABETH A (LIZ)||LAKE BLUFF||IL||CEO||$20,000|
|UIHLEIN, RICHARD ELLIS (DICK)||LAKE FOREST||IL||CHAIRMAN||$20,000|
|WHITE, CATHY||RIVER HILLS||WI||HOMEMAKER||$20,000|
|WHITE, MICHAEL||RIVER HILLS||WI||$20,000|
|WILSON, DONALD S.||MIDDLETON||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|YOUNG , SANDRA||RACINE||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
|YOUNG JR, FRED M||RACINE||WI||RETIRED||$20,000|
Hina Suzuki and Jessica Sonkin contributed to this story.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.