Dark money group vastly outspending candidates on ads in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

A screenshot of an ad by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a dark money group.

A dark money group is spending big on ads around a Wisconsin Supreme Court race — far more than the actual candidates.

Incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley faces a challenge from Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. Each has painted the other as partisan & ideological  — Bradley was appointed by GOP Gov. Scott Walker, a fact that Kloppenberg has highlighted, while Bradley has pointed to Kloppenburg’s past support from liberal groups.

One outside group has vastly outspent the candidates in this race: the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform (WAR). Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the group has spent $859,085 on TV as of March 18; the Brennan Center estimates that it has spent $932,480 including cable and radio ads. That’s compared to just $192,200 by Kloppenburg. WAR’s ads have attacked Kloppenburg for protecting “criminals,” including in one ad about a child sexual assault victim that the group pulled after the girl’s family complained, describing it as “political slander.” The ad is still available on their YouTube channel.

WAR also ran ads opposing Democrat Russ Feingold, who is running against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson; in fact, their site’s homepage is still focused on Feingold and his “liberal voting record,” despite their huge spending in the state Supreme Court race.

Their ads were purchased by Nonbox, who also produced ads for Walker.

As a 501(c)(4), WAR is not required to disclose its donors, but there are some clues about who’s behind it. The Center for Media and Democracy reported in October that the person who registered the website, Lorri Pickens, is a former director at Americans for Prosperity, which was established by conservative megadonor David Koch and has been one of the Kochs’ biggest vehicles for political spending. Since that report, it seems the site has changed its registration details — a domain lookup now lists the admin as Domains By Proxy, LLC, which is a service provided by GoDaddy to allow anonymous website registrations. Luckily enough, the Center for Media and Democracy took a screenshot before they changed it.

WAR’s treasurer is Nate Nelson, who is also a field director at American Majority, an organization that trains conservative candidates across the country. American Majority has hosted trainings with Americans for Prosperity and Young Americans for Liberty, a partner organization of the Charles Koch Institute.  

The judicial election is on April 5. When Wisconsin voters go to the polls, they won’t know who funded most of the ad spending around this race.