Outside groups set new campaign spending record in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

By: - February 22, 2023 5:29 pm

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Record-breaking spending by outside groups has marked the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court race that narrowed to two people after this week’s primary election, the campaign finance watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported Wednesday.

In spending by outside groups to date, $493,250 has gone to advertising in support of Tuesday’s top vote-getter, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz, according to the Democracy Campaign.

More than five times as much, $2.59 million, went to support former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who finished second. Another $2.55 million went to support or oppose Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow and Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell, who both lost Tuesday.

In the officially nonpartisan race, Kelly, a conservative backed by Republicans, will go on to face Protasiewicz, who ran with the backing of liberals and Democrats, in the April election.

The bulk of the outside spending came from two outside groups. Fair Courts America, financed by billionaire Richard Uihlein, spent $2.37 million on radio and television advertising supporting Kelly.

A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund, an independent expenditure committee that backs Democrats and other candidates on the left, spent $2.15 million on online and television advertising that opposed Dorow.

Altogether 16 outside groups have spent $5.63 million in the primary election alone for the open high court seat, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported. That already tops the previous record in the last race for a state Supreme Court justice, set in 2020, when $5.03 million was spent by outside groups in the primary and general election combined .

The combined spending on campaigns by the candidates and outside groups has reached $7.39 million to date, according to the Democracy Campaign. The 2020 race also set a record of $10 million for total candidate and outside spending for a Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

The 2023 race is likely to get much more expensive. It has become the focus of national attention because  it could shift the ideological balance of the court from a 4-3 conservative lean to a 4-3 liberal alignment, just before cases on gerrymandering and Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban are likely to come up.

Through Feb. 6, the four primary candidates themselves spent $1.76 million, the Democracy Campaign reported, citing the candidates’ campaign finance reports.

Protasiewicz led the field in spending by the campaigns, with $1.18 million. The remaining $580,000 was divided among the other three candidates.

Kelly was appointed to the high court in 2016 then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Kelly lost his bid to retain the seat in the 2020 election won by Justice Jill Karofsky.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.