Outside groups spent $4.5 million on WI Supreme Court race

Color me a little surprised by both the top line and the breakdown in this report from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which took a look at outside spending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election that narrowly gave Justice David Prosser a victory over challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg.  According to their analysis, reported today in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the largest outside-group intervention benefited Kloppenburg, but Prosser benefited overall by a 3-2 margin:

Thirty-five outside groups doled out $4.5 million in the two months before the April 5 general election between incumbent Justice David Prosser and his challenger, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg. The groups represented business, labor, abortion, education, environmental, gun and liberal and conservative ideological interests, among others, and hailed from inside and outside the state, including Washington D.C., Virginia and Vermont.

The special interest groups spent an estimated $2.7 million to support Prosser and $1.8 million to back Kloppenburg.

Leading the smear groups was the Greater Wisconsin Committee which spent nearly $1.7 million to support Kloppenburg. The Madison-based group has been a leading spender on outside electioneering activities in most partisan races for statewide office and the legislature and in nonpartisan state Supreme Court races since it was created in 2004 to support Democratic candidates.

Greater Wisconsin sponsored web ads, phone banks and four television ads to support Kloppenburg. One of the group’s worst ads condemned Prosser for not prosecuting a Catholic priest in Green Bay accused of sexually abusing two boys when Prosser was Outagamie County district attorney in the late 1970s.

However, Prosser got helped by an influx of money from established conservative political groups, such as Citizens for a Strong America, a group affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, which put in a strong effort to support the Republicans during the fleebagging episode earlier in the year.  The Club for Growth’s Wisconsin affiliate pitched in $520,000 on its own for a television ad and a radio spot, and the Tea Party Express bought a TV ad for $70,000.  Put together, those three didn’t amount to the same contribution as the GWC on its own, but a total of 35 outside groups spent money in this race.  Presumably, the vast majority of the rest broke for Prosser.

That raises a rather interesting question — actually, two of them.  First, the unions were the main players in hyping this race into a referendum on Scott Walker and the PEU reform bill.  Did they run out of money after those massive and somewhat embarrassing demonstrations at the capital?  One would have expected them to go all out to win the race after framing it as practically an existential moment.

The second question would be whether the media really missed the boat on grassroots support for Walker and by extension Prosser.  The big three mentioned in the front page of the WDC’s report came up over $1 million shy of the total amount that went into supporting Prosser through outside groups. In contrast, the amount of Kloppenburg outside support minus the GWC was around $100,000.  It certainly seems as though the outside spending edge went to Prosser not from big, corporate-based orgs but from small activist groups.