Money, party support lead to wins in Wisconsin’s nonpartisan races

    Jill Underly
    Jill Underly (via Facebook)

    In several races on the ballot on Tuesday, the support of the state’s political parties and the money that comes with it helped boost nonpartisan candidates into office. Neither major party focused on the same races, allowing each to cruise to wins in their own lanes. 

    In the only statewide race on the ballot, for state superintendent of schools, Democrats poured money and institutional support into their preferred candidate, Pecatonica Schools Superintendent Jill Underly. Republicans, meanwhile, focused money and institutional support on the two contested races for seats on the state’s courts of appeals — continuing a national trend of Republicans asserting influence over the ideological makeup of the judicial system. 

    Underly rode her massive fundraising advantage, built with the help of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s (DPW) organizing apparatus, to a double-digit win over Republican-backed Deborah Kerr, who did not attract the same level of partisan support. 

    Underly raised more than $1 million with large donations from DPW and the state’s teachers unions. Kerr wasn’t financially supported by the Republican Party of Wisconsin and raised less than $100,000. Outside groups poured a record-breaking $1 million into the race, disproportionately on Underly’s side. The American Federation for Children, a national pro-school-voucher group founded by President Donald Trump’s former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, spent $209,000 to help Kerr with an online ad buy attacking Underly. 

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    This year’s superintendent race smashed previous fundraising records. 

    In the two appellate court districts, the candidate with the financial support of the state’s conservative billionaires and the endorsement of prominent Republican officials was able to run away with the race. 

    Shelley Grogan, a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, won in the 2nd District, covering most of southeastern Wisconsin. Grogan defeated incumbent Judge Jeff Davis after painting him as a liberal who was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers. Those attacks left out that Grogan herself had applied to Evers’ office for the job when it was vacated by Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn. 

    Grogan was endorsed by Bradley, former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Gov. Scott Walker. She also built a fundraising advantage over Davis after contributions from major Republican donors including Diane Hendricks, Richard Uihlein and John Menard. 

    Davis, who was endorsed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, was able to keep pace in the money race by pitching in his own cash but ended up losing by double digits to Grogan.

    In the 3rd District, covering most of northern Wisconsin, Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Greg Gill rode a 5-1 fundraising advantage to a win over Wausau defense attorney Rick Cveykus. 

    Gill also received donations from big Republican donors Uihlein and Menard as well as the support of 25 county Republican parties, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay).

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.