2016 Supreme Court Preview

 Joe Murray  |    August 07, 2015

Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks is up for re-election in April 2016. After serving 20 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Justice Crooks — who was endorsed by the WRA and RPAC trustees in both elections — is expected to retire, paving the way for an open-seat race for next year’s election. Crooks is generally considered the “swing” vote on a seven-member Supreme Court where judicial conservatives outnumber liberals 4-2. An open seat contest sets up a potentially competitive and expensive election that will be influenced by several political factors.

The return of JoAnne Kloppenburg: In 2011, JoAnne Kloppenburg narrowly lost to incumbent Justice David Prosser in an election that turned into a proxy fight over Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining fight with public employee unions. Kloppenburg has already announced her candidacy for the 2016 race. In the April 2011 Supreme Court election, Prosser defeated Kloppenburg by only 7,004 votes out of nearly 1.5 million votes cast. That election was arguably the most contentious Supreme Court election in Wisconsin history, and Kloppenburg nearly defeated a sitting Supreme Court incumbent. Supreme Court incumbents rarely lose.

Rebecca Bradley: As a potential candidate to run against Kloppenburg, conservatives have approached Court of Appeals Judge Rebecca Bradley of Milwaukee. This would set up a race with two appellate court judges with two very different judicial philosophies: one liberal with Kloppenburg, and one conservative with Bradley. Both candidates will attempt to dismiss their political labels, but voters will make a clear distinction between the two by the time voting begins if Bradley enters the race.

Joe Donald: Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald has already entered the race and has raised a significant amount of money to the surprise of political insiders. Donald is not a well-known name in Milwaukee or statewide, but his early fundraising success may be a signal to the more established names in the race of his intention to seriously contest in the primary election. It remains to be seen if others jump in as well.

Presidential primary wild card: One potentially significant wild card in next year’s Supreme Court election could be the April presidential primary in Wisconsin. On the first Tuesday in April 2016, voters will cast a ballot for Supreme Court and the presidential primary. The presidential primary election could strongly influence the outcome of the Supreme Court race. 

Let’s assume that Republicans still have a nomination fight going on in Wisconsin next April. This would generate lots of GOP primary spending and organizing as well as a higher Republican voter turnout — which could easily benefit the judicial conservative running for Supreme Court.

And what about the Democrats? Will Hillary Clinton’s primary be wrapped up, as some suggest, or will she come to Wisconsin in a competitive primary of her own with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) or Martin O’Mally, the former Maryland governor? If Clinton has her nomination all but wrapped up and faces little opposition in Wisconsin, JoAnne Kloppenburg will be forced to generate her own voter turnout against a GOP field that could include Scott Walker. Under this scenario, Kloppenburg could be disadvantaged by the lack of a presidential primary on the Democratic side.

What will the business community do? In the 2015 Supreme Court race, the Wisconsin business community, including the WRA, largely stayed on the sidelines. Will they stay out of the 2016 open-seat contest or get back into the race again next year? The smart money would bet on re-engagement. Open seat contests are more competitive, and the business community is more likely to take a side in this very important election.

Plus, Kapenga Edges Dorow

Predictions for a close race in the 33rd Senate District primary election were correct. State Rep. Chris Kapenga, who was endorsed by the WRA, narrowly defeated Brian Dorow by 630 votes out of a total of 10,659. Political handicappers point to several factors that gave Kapenga the early edge in this election:

Kapenga already represented one-third of the 33rd Senate District as a member of the state Assembly. This provided Kapenga with the “incumbency” advantage from the start.

Kapenga raised more money and was able to out-spend Dorow. As a member of the state Assembly, Kapenga was able to out-raise Dorow in the primary election. Kapenga’s fundraising advantage was key to his win because Dorow was assisted by a third-party group that was critical of Kapenga’s record. 

Kapenga had name identification in the 33rd Senate District due to his effort three years ago when he ran for Senate against Paul Farrow. This, along with his Assembly seat base and fundraising advantage, turned out to be a difference maker in the June 2015 special election.

This was the second time Dorow ran for the state legislature, and the second time he has finished a close second to Chris Kapenga.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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