Dark Money Was the Real Winner in Wisconsin

Dark Money Was the Real Winner in Wisconsin

(Photo: John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)


With the nation’s attention riveted by the Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz victories in Wisconsin’s presidential primary, an arguably far more important political battle came to a head as a state district judge tried to unseat Republican Governor Scott Walker’s hand-picked choice for the state Supreme Court.

In a bid to shift the ideological makeup of the state’s high court, dark money groups poured more than $2 million into the race. They put their financial muscle behind state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley who went on to beat Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg by nearly five percentage points in the heated contest.

Bradley’s victory was a disheartening sign for many Wisconsinites who worry that her past vitriolic comments, plus with her apparent alignment with Walker’s conservative ideology, do not bode well for the state judiciary.

Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton had lambasted Bradley for opinion columns that she wrote when she was a Marquette University student. She labeled AIDS patients and gay people “degenerates” and expressed strong anti-women and anti-abortion sentiments.

The dark money-fueled ad war gave the race an ugly undertone. The lion’s share of outside spending came from the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a conservative group with ties to Walker and the Koch brothers that has been at the center of many controversial state political battles in recent years.

The group spent roughly $1.8 million on ads casting Kloppenburg as soft on crime, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. One ad claimed that Kloppenburg let a sex offender walk free on a technicality, a claim that Politifact concluded was “Mostly False.”

For her part, Kloppenburg benefited from the nearly $400,000 that the liberal group Greater Wisconsin Committee spent attacking Bradley for her past comments and her “extreme views.”

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election is just the latest example of a troubling trend for fair courts advocates. Outside spending has soared in the years since the Citizens United ruling, and conservative political networks are targeting the courts in states where judges are elected in the hopes of adding more conservative judges. Much of that outside spending comes from nonprofit 501(c)(4) groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

Just last month, a massive influx of dark money in Arkansas’s Supreme Court elections fueled a dirty attack ad war that eventually led Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson to call for judicial election reform.

Outside money in judicial elections has been found to be particularly pernicious. Attack ads in these races predominately focus on crime. One study found that when large numbers of negative TV ads air in a judicial race, the winning candidates are less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants. Other reports show that outside money tends to produce more corporate-friendly courts.

“This reflects a growing recognition that state courts are extremely powerful and the decisions they make are high stakes for businesses,” says Alicia Bannon, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “If you can impact who sits on that court, that in turn can impact the type of decisions those courts make. That can make a big difference for a business’s bottom line.”