Groups Raise $680,000 to Spend on Last-Minute Ad Blitz for Constitutional Amendment

Posted: March 31, 2015
Updated: April 3, 2015

Two special interest groups with opposing views on a proposed constitutional amendment before voters on the April 7 spring ballot have raised $680,000 to spend on last-minute broadcast ad blitzes.

The proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution would change the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s chief justice is chosen. Currently, the longest-serving justice on the court serves as the chief justice. The proposed amendment would allow the seven-member court to choose any of the justices to serve as their chief every two years.

Documents filed Monday with the Government Accountability Board (GAB) show Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business organization and an influential player in state policymaking, spending and elections, gave $600,000 to an electioneering group called Vote Yes for Democracy. Vote Yes is sponsoring a 60-second radio ad and a 30-second television ad urging voters to approve the referendum because the current constitutional method for picking the chief justice is archaic and undemocratic.

Documents showed the group planned to spend at least $189,000 on the radio ad.

Vote Yes for Democracy’s treasurer is Brandon Scholz, a longtime Capitol lobbyist and Republican political consultant whose clients include the Wisconsin Grocers Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Propane Gas Association, among others.

Backers of the amendment, which was approved by two successive sessions of the Republican-controlled legislature in order to go to the voters, say the high court should be able to pick its own chief justice. But, critics contend the amendment is a means for the court’s 4-3 conservative majority to oust Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who has been chief justice since 1996 and is often labeled a liberal judge.

Opposing the amendment is the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which created a group called Make Your Vote Count that sponsored radio and TV ads that tell listeners that voters affirmed Abrahamson’s longtime leadership on the court by reelecting her in 2009. Documents filed with the GAB showed the Greater Wisconsin Committee planned to spend at least $80,000 on the radio ad.

Both WMC and Greater Wisconsin frequently spend millions of dollars on outside electioneering activities, like negative broadcast ads and mailings, in Wisconsin statewide and legislative elections. WMC, which supports Republicans in partisan elections, has spent an estimated $25.9 million on outside electioneering activities since 2006. Greater Wisconsin, which supports Democratic candidates in partisan elections, has spent an estimated $32.8 million on electioneering activities since 2006.