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Ad war heats up as spending shatters records in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

Judge Janet Protasiewicz opened up a new line of attack on former Justice Dan Kelly and the state's largest business group jumped into the fray

Stairs lead up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court inside the state capitol building.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The TV ad war in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race has heated up as Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s campaign opened up new lines of attack on former Justice Dan Kelly, and the state’s largest business group jumped into the fray with a reported multi-million dollar ad buy on Kelly’s behalf.

Spending on the race also continued to pile up, with $13 million spent on TV ads since the Feb. 21 primary by one count. When added to the money spent before the primary, Wisconsin’s race would blow past the previous national record for a state supreme court race.

The leading spender so far has been Protasiewicz, whose campaign has benefited from millions of dollars in transfers from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Kelly, the candidate backed by Republicans, has yet to reserve ads in the general election campaign, but Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council began running what it called a “substantial buy” in the race.

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One of the latest ads from Protasiewicz includes attacks Kelly in blunt terms for a case he planned to hear when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2020.

The background of the case, which involved the state’s voter rolls, is lengthy. It was filed in 2019 by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, a group where Kelly once served briefly on a litigation advisory board. The plaintiff in the case, Timothy Zignego, was a Kelly campaign donor. Records maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show contributions from the Zignego family totaled $20,000 in 2019 and 2020.

The court initially split 3-3 in January 2020 on whether to hear an expedited appeal of the case, which could have purged tens of thousands of names from Wisconsin’s voter rolls. At the time, Kelly, who was running for election, declined to hear the case.

After Kelly lost his race in April 2020, he said circumstances had changed, and he would hear the case on appeal after all.

The case didn’t move as quickly as WILL had hoped, and by the time justices heard it on appeal, Kelly had left the court. Justices eventually ruled against WILL in 2021.

Protasiewicz’s campaign ad seized on the donations from Zignego to Kelly, saying Kelly had “conveniently” changed his mind about whether to hear the case because of the contributions.

“What does it cost to buy off a judge?” asks a narrator in the ad. “For extremist Dan Kelly, he’s for sale for $20,000.”

Kelly responded in a written statement calling Protasiewicz a “sloppy and irresponsible judge,” and calling her ad “slanderous.” He said he initially recused himself from the case because it had the potential of affecting his own election, then decided to hear it after he was no longer a candidate.

“Once again, my opponent has proven she is a liar without the character necessary to serve on our Supreme Court,” Kelly said. “She is a disgrace to the judiciary.”

This week also marked the first time that WMC — for years, a major player in Wisconsin Supreme Court campaigns — decided to throw its weight behind Kelly in a meaningful way. The group began running an ad attacking Protasiewicz for what it said were light sentences during her time as a circuit court judge in Milwaukee County.

The firm AdImpact, which tracks TV advertising nationwide, said WMC’s ad buy totaled $3.2 million.

“We do not comment on any specifics related to our spending,” said WMC spokesperson Nick Novak in an email. “I can confirm the ads are up and running, and I can confirm it is a substantial buy.”

Protasiewicz campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said in an email that no candidate in the race had more experience holding people accountable than Protasiewicz, citing her record as a prosecutor and a judge.

“Right-wing groups are desperate to mislead voters about her record, because they know Dan Kelly has never been a judge, full-time prosecutor, or sentenced anyone to prison,” Roecker said.

Overall, AdImpact projected $13.2 million had been spent on TV ads the race since Protasiewicz and Kelly emerged from the primary. The leading spender was Protasiewicz with $7 million, followed by WMC with $3.2 million. The conservative Fair Courts America, which is funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, had spend $1.7 million on ads, followed by the liberal group A Better Wisconsin at $1.1 million.

When paired with the primary campaign, Wisconsin’s race has hit $22.4 million on TV advertising alone according to AdImpact’s numbers. The previous record for spending in a state judicial race was $15.2 million, which the Brennan Center for Justice said was set in Illinois in 2004.

“We’re not going to set the record, we’re gonna blow it out of the water,” said David Canon, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Canon said it was hard to say what WMC’s ad buy would mean for the race because there hasn’t been any public polling.

“Although one thing that I think you can infer from that is that if they thought this was not a winnable race, they wouldn’t be putting more than $3 million into it,” Canon said.

In the four-way primary for the court race, Protasiewicz received nearly 47 percent of the vote, which was slightly more than the combined total of Kelly and Judge Jennifer Dorow, the other conservative on the February ballot.