Record-breaking outside spending dominated state Supreme Court race 

By: - May 3, 2023 11:46 am

Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Roughly two-thirds of the money spent in the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election came from outside groups, a record $28.8 million, according to new data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Outside spending in the race was nearly six times the previous record of $5.03 million, set in 2020, the Democracy Campaign reports.. The organization has previously estimated  spending by outside groups and the candidates’ campaigns combined topped $42.3 million. 

The campaign finance watchdog group reported Wednesday that outside spending on behalf of former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who lost the April 4 election, totaled $16.76 million. That was nearly one-and-a-half times the $11.61 million spent on behalf of Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the winner with more than 55% of the vote.

Kelly was backed by conservative and Republican-leaning groups in the ostensibly nonpartisan Supreme Court race, while Protasiewicz was supported and endorsed by liberal and Democratic-leaning organizations. 

About $440,000 was spent to support or oppose candidates who lost the Feb. 21 primary election, the Democracy Campaign reported.

The Democracy Campaign’s report combines disclosed independent expenditures by outside groups for or against candidates along with undisclosed spending on issue ads that aren’t regulated under campaign finance law. 

Issue ads don’t explicitly call on viewers to vote for or against a particular candidate, but employ language and rhetoric that clearly favors or opposes a candidate. The Wisconsin Democracy campaign estimates issue ad spending based on information from broadcasters and other sources.

The single largest outside spender in the race was A Better Wisconsin Together, a progressive messaging and fundraising group, which spent $6.3 million in the campaign, most of it benefiting Protasiewicz. Its spending included both regulated independent expenditures and unregulated issue ads, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The second- and third-biggest spenders, both favoring Kelly, were Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, $5.6 million, and Fair Courts America, $5.4 million. Fair Courts America, which spends money to elect conservative judges, is bankrolled by Richard Uihlein, an Illinois billionaire and cofounder of Uline, a shipping and packaging supply company. 

Altogether, 19 organizations pitched in spending on Kelly’s behalf while 39 groups spent money to elect Protasiewicz. 


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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.