$45 Million and Counting

How did we get here?

 Nathan Conrad, WRA Director of Political Advocacy  |    May 01, 2023

It wasn’t so long ago that spring elections were not viewed as particularly noteworthy. In Wisconsin especially, voters have gone through election fatigue for the last decade or so. A lot of national attention is laser-focused on the Badger State during presidential election years due to the state’s importance as a swing state for the electoral college. Whether it was during the recalls of the early 2010s, or the extremely contentious gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races of 2022, the lion’s share of voter involvement in the election cycle is focused on the fall elections held on the second Tuesday of November. 

In these fall elections every two years, we as voters decide on whom to send to the state Assembly, whom to represent us in Congress, and we decide on half of our state Senate. Every four years, we decide on our statewide constitutional offices, including our state treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor. In the alternate two-year cycle, we also decide on the leader of the free world, the President of the United States. In those elections, we also decide whom we send to Washington as our U.S. Senator. 

Since the recalls of 2011 and 2012, Wisconsin voters have been asked to the ballot box several times more than the average voter in other states. In fact, since 2014, voters have been asked to the polls at least 24 times. 

Why do voters keep coming back? 

It is not just a sense of civic duty; it is partly due to the massive increase in political campaign spending to target and ensure that base voters — and now occasional voters — get to the polls on election day.

Before 2020, it was unheard of for a race in a state of 6 million people to exceed $15-20 million in total spending. Those numbers have been eclipsed as campaigns, political parties and third-party advocates have gotten better at asking for and spending money efficiently to get their preferred candidate’s message to the masses.

More importantly, spring elections, which used to be lightly followed unless one was a political insider or very interested in the outcomes of local judicial races, have become the playground of big spending.

If you sat in front of a computer, a television, your cell phone, or went to your mailbox since January 2023, you were no doubt inundated with campaign materials regarding the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. In the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, more than $45 million was spent either for or against the candidates who ran for that seat. That amount dwarfs what has been spent an any Supreme Court race in Wisconsin or any other state. 

Both campaigns were hard at work pressing for contributions so that they could extend their message to the people of Wisconsin. The Protasiewicz campaign brought in more than $12 million, in what is easily the largest amount raised by a Supreme Court candidate in the nation’s history. The Kelly campaign was no slouches in adding to their coffers nearly $3 million. Both candidates received support, either in-kind or direct campaign contributions from the political parties that most closely align with their judicial outlook. Again, both sides of this ideological divide also benefited from robust spending by independent third-party advocacy groups. 

What does this mean?

With the ideological identity of the court on the line, this race brought nationwide attention to an election that just six years ago failed to garner two candidates for the top of the ticket. You read that right: in 2017, current Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler did not field an opponent in her race. We have likely seen the last of uncontested races. This year’s race most likely laid the groundwork for even longer campaign cycles for the Supreme Court as well as even larger pots of money to be spent to engage and educate the voters of the Badger State.

This race, and those that follow, will continue to be a battle for the ideological identity of the court, which will drive enhanced spending for years to come. 

But don’t worry, with the amount spent in 2023, you will be sure to be informed when the next seat comes up for election in 2025. If you want to know why, the answer is simple: Candidates, their allies, third-party activists and all the voters in between will no doubt be inundated with ads for years to come. Millions of dollars are already being put into place for the next race.  

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