Super PACs are jumping into the Wisconsin state Supreme Court race. This week a total of $1.64 million was disclosed to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission for TV and radio ads by outside groups. This is on top of $1.7 million spent by the four contestants, two liberal-leaning and two conservative-leaning, as reported in January by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
The primary to fill the open Court seat being vacated by conservative Justice Patience Roggensack will be held on February 21, with the top two vote-getters in the nominally nonpartisan contest advancing to a runoff on April 4.
The election of a liberal judge to replace Roggensack would flip the Court to a 4–3 liberal advantage. In light of likely upcoming fights over Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political map, the state’s 1849 ban on abortion, and voter suppression legislation passed last session, Politico has called it “the most important election nobody’s ever heard of.”
Fair Courts America, a PAC associated with billionaire and GOP mega-donor Dick Uihlein, reported to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission spending $812,000 on political communications. Uihlein, together with his wife Elizabeth, own the shipping material manufacturer ULINE.
The Uihleins—who pumped $5.8 million into reelecting Trump ally Ron Johnson (R–WI) to the U.S. Senate last year—have the potential to dominate spending in this year’s Supreme Court race. Fair Courts America, an offshoot of the Uihlein-bankrolled Restoration PAC, has pledged to do whatever it takes to elect former Supreme Court justice and right-winger Daniel Kelly.
Kelly was appointed to the Court in 2016 by then Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Kelly served until 2020 when he was defeated in his first election by Jill Karofsky.
Kelly is deeply tied to Republicans and the Wisconsin right-wing infrastructure. He is the former president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a former member of the advisory panel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and worked on the legal team that defended the 2011 Wisconsin gerrymander.
A 2023 Statement of Economic Interests filed by Kelly for 2022 obtained and first reported by CMD shows that the Bradley Foundation, a tax-exempt foundation that has weaponized philanthropy to systematically build up and maintain Wisconsin’s right-wing infrastructure, and the Bradley-funded Liberty Justice Center, an Illinois-based, right-wing litigation center, paid Kelly more than $1,000 last year.
“Fair Courts America is committed to spending millions of dollars to help educate voters in support of Justice Dan Kelly,” noted spokesperson Dan Curry in a press release. “He is a consistent conservative with impeccable judgment and superior intellect. In these turbulent times, we cannot take a chance on untested, unproven alternatives.”
Fair Courts America reported spending $250,000 for radio time and $500,000 for TV time. The TV ad touts that Kelly “cast the deciding vote to end the Covid lockdown on our schools and businesses.”
The dark money liberal group “A Better Wisconsin Together” also reported spending $829,000, also on political communications. Two liberals are running in the primary, Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz, but Better Wisconsin is not running ads to support either. Instead, it is spending its money for TV and radio ads opposing the other candidate competing with Kelly for the conservative vote, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow. The ad accuses Dorow of letting criminals “off the hook.”
Apparently, Better Wisconsin wants Daniel Kelly as the opponent to either of the two liberal judges in the run-off, should one make the run-off. Kelly has lost once, and liberal and Democratic groups apparently believe Kelly would be the weaker of the two conservatives.
Four current members of the Supreme Court have endorsed candidates in the race. Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet, both liberals, have endorsed Protasiewicz. Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley has endorsed Kelly, while retiring conservative Justice Roggensack is backing Dorow.