Wisconsin’s circuit court system makes an overwhelming majority of the judicial decisions in the state, yet the money that flows into circuit court elections pales in comparison to races for higher courts.
Despite making up just a fraction of the cost of Wisconsin’s supreme court races, the source of funding for the state’s circuit judges provides valuable insight into who is trying to influence the Wisconsin judicial system.
This year there are 11 contested circuit court races across the state, in counties as large as Milwaukee and as small as Bayfield. These 11 races have drawn a combined $196,337 in campaign donations, not including money that candidates have put into their own campaigns.
In comparison, last year’s Supreme Court race between incumbent Daniel Kelly and Jill Karofsky drew $2.7 million in campaign donations. That doesn’t include the amount of spending by outside groups to influence the highly contested race that served as a proxy battle between the two major political parties and a launch pad for the divisive 2020 presidential election.
Even the state’s contested appeals court races — historically sleepy affairs — have become more intense. This year the two contested races for seats on Wisconsin’s appellate courts have drawn the attention of major conservative donors trying to shape the state’s judiciary.
Shelley Grogan, the more conservative challenger in the Waukesha-based 2nd District, raised $237,386 in the most recent reporting period. Grogan is challenging Jeff Davis, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers but has the backing of other Republicans in the district. Davis has poured more than $500,000 of his own money into the race.
In the Wausau-based 3rd District, Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Greg Gill has outraised his opponent, attorney Rick Cveykus, by a 5-1 margin.
Both Gill and Grogan have received money from high profile conservative mega-donors including Richard Uihlein, John Menard and Diane Hendricks.
The attention of the state’s powerful billionaires has not yet turned to the state’s circuit court races. But in a smaller pond, the influence of even a $1,000 donation can have a big effect.
A large portion of the donors are lawyers, which is unsurprising considering the state’s lawyers are likely to have strong opinions about which of their colleagues are qualified to be judges. Though in some cases, local attorneys are donating to the judicial campaigns in the district they work in — creating a potential conflict of interest when they try a case in front of a judge they supported financially.
For example, Green County Corporation Counsel Brian Bucholtz donated $500 to the campaign of Faun Phillipson, who is running for a seat on the Green County Circuit Court. As the county’s lawyer, Bucholtz is likely to represent Green County in the courtroom of whichever candidate wins.
Patrick Cafferty, a criminal defense lawyer who works in Racine and Kenosha counties gave $500 to the campaign of Angelina Gabriele, the Kenosha County deputy district attorney running for a seat on the bench.
Aside from lawyers trying to influence which judges they’ll be practicing in front of, there are several examples of the legislative branch of Wisconsin state government trying to influence the judicial branch.
State Reps Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee), Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha), Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha) and David Steffen (R-Green Bay) all donated money to judicial campaigns.
There are also more than a dozen examples of the judicial branch trying to influence who joins its ranks. Two judges on the 1st District Court of Appeals — which covers Milwaukee County — donated to a circuit court race, though not one within their district.
Judges Joe Donald and Maxine White both donated to the campaign of Angela Cunningham, who is running against Gabriele in Kenosha County. In an area that was rocked with protests for racial justice following the police shooting of Jacob Blake last summer, Cunningham would be the first Black judge in the county.
Donald gave $500 to Cunningham’s campaign and White gave $250.
At the lower level, 12 current circuit court judges — including seven in Milwaukee County — donated to campaigns.
The seven Milwaukee County Circuit Court judges donated a combined $1,118 to three campaigns. Pedro Colon, Jeffrey Kremers, Carolina Stark and Danielle Shelton all donated to Cunningham’s Kenosha County campaign. Stark also donated to the Milwaukee County campaign of Katie Kegel. David Borowski, Jean Kies and Janet Protasiewicz all donated to Kegel’s opponent, Susan Roth.
Other notable donors include Kevin Hermening, the former chair of the Marathon County Republican Party, who donated $200 to Scott Corbett, who is running for a seat on the Marathon County Circuit Court.
Mark Thomsen, a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, gave $250 to Cunningham’s campaign. Robert Atwell, a University of Wisconsin System Regent gave $2,000 to the campaign of incumbent Brown County Judge Kendall Kelley. Atwell also serves as Kelley’s campaign treasurer.
Kelley, who is running against Green Bay Assistant City Attorney Rachel Maes, also received a $1,000 donation from George Burnett. Burnett is a Green Bay attorney who aided in former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
While not the dark money magnets of more high profile judicial elections, some candidates have drawn the support of national PACs and local unions.
Demand Justice PAC, a national progressive organization trying to influence the court system from local trial courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, spent $75,000 in online advertising for several of the state’s circuit court candidates.
While not going directly into the candidates’ campaign accounts, the spending is meant to urge voters to cast their ballots for four southern Wisconsin judicial candidates.
Kegel benefited the most from the outside spending, with the PAC spending $35,000 on ads to help her campaign.
Cunningham, already one of the most effective fundraisers in the state, was aided by $20,000 in digital ads supporting her. Larisa Benitez-Morgan, a candidate in Kenosha County’s other contested court race, was helped by $10,000 in online ads from the organization.
The PAC also spent $10,000 advertising for Jane Bucher in Green County.
Roth, in Milwaukee, received a $500 donation from the Milwaukee Police Association, While Kegel received $1,000 from the American Federation of Teachers and $500 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 494.
Cunningham also got $2,000 from Collective PAC, an organization supporting Black candidates for office that also aided Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ campaign.
Benitez-Morgan, received $500 from the Kenosha Education Association.
Donations aren’t the only piece of campaign finance that provide valuable information about this year’s circuit court races. How the candidates spend the money is also important.
In Fond du Lac County, Andrew Christenson has only raised about $8,000 through donations. He has however pumped more than $100,000 of his own money into the race through personal loans and in-kind donations.
The Fond du Lac native who currently serves as the Green Lake County District Attorney features a glowing quote from former Gov. Scott Walker on his website. Christenson has also spent nearly $70,000 on a Madison-based Republican consulting firm, Persuasion Partners.
Persuasion Partners is run by Darrin Schmitz, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Christenson isn’t the only candidate spending money on high-priced partisan consultants. Kelley, in Green Bay, owes $14,000 to a consulting firm in Florida that has worked with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
For all 11 contested circuit court races, Election Day is Tuesday, April 6.