Hijacking Campaign 2016

Wisconsin Alliance for Reform

Posted: February 1, 2016
Updated: May 31, 2017

This is a Madison-based conservative issue ad group formed in April 2015. Like other conservative groups, the Alliance touts itself as a pro-economic growth, anti-tax organization. The group’s leaders include Luke Fuller, a former aide to state Senator Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Chris Martin, former communications director for the state Republican Party. The Alliance’s decision to sponsor issue ads means that it can secretly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on its outside electioneering activities. The organization claims its members are individuals and community leaders, but it does not identify any of its members.

The group first got noticed in November 2015 for running broadcast ads - here and here - attacking Democrat Russ Feingold, a year in advance of the November 2016 election. Feingold unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson that election. Feingold had lost to Johnson in 2010 after holding the seat for 18 years.

Spring Election Activity

The Alliance was the largest outside group spender in the spring Wisconsin Supreme Court race, spending an estimated $2.3 million, more than all the Supreme Court candidates spent combined.

Three candidates faced off in the Feb. 16 primary for a 10-year seat on the state Supreme Court. The two top finishers moving on to the April 5 general election were incumbent Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was appointed to the job in October 2015 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to fill a vacant seat on the high court, and Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who had last run for the office in 2011.

Two weeks before the Feb. 16 primary, the Alliance sponsored televisions ads throughout the state that praised Bradley. Television ad purchases filed with the Federal Communication Commission showed the group purchased ads in the Madison, Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Milwaukee markets.  The Alliance's first ad dubbed Bradley, one of the court's five conservative judges, an independent jurist who had earned the support of numerous members of the law enforcement community.  Media reports - here and here - said the footage of Bradley used in the group's ad was created by her campaign.

The Alliance followed up its TV ads with a statewide, 60-second radio ad claiming Bradley was recognized for her judicial record and community service by fellow judges, law enforcement and firefighters.

The Democracy Campaign estimates the Alliance spent between $750,000 and $1 million on television and radio ads on behalf of Bradley in February.

In early March, the Alliance sponsored a smear ad that targeted Kloppenburg, a judge on the five-member 4th District Court of Appeals, for a decision issued by the court that granted a new hearing for a man convicted in Dane County Circuit Court of assaulting a 15-year-old. 

An Alliance spokesman said in an interview that the group had spent about $1 million on to air the second ad statewide on network and cable television. A review of television ad buys by the Democracy Campaign found that the group purchased two weeks of time, from about March 8 through March 21, in the Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, La Crosse, and Wausau television markets.

In mid-March, the Alliance sponsored a third television ad that targeted Kloppenburg for an appeals court decision in 2012 that reversed the conviction of a man in Jefferson County Circuit Court for exposing his daughter to harmful material.

During the last week of March, the Alliance launched a fourth television ad with the same theme as the others - accusing Kloppenburg of protecting criminals rather than victims. The ad referred to a 2008 Columbia County Circuit Court case in which Kloppenburg sided with a lower court ruling that excluded evidence against a man accused in a fatal hit-and-run case.

During the spring election the Alliance also got involved in at least one local race. The group sponsored mailings - here, here, here, and here - in February against Iowa County District Attorney Larry Nelson, one of four candidates for an Iowa County circuit judgeship. The mailings attacked Nelson for his handling of three cases as district attorney. Nelson failed to make it through the primary.

Nelson was one of three district attorneys who teamed up to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in July 2015 that ended the John Doe II investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination between Walker and outside special interest groups during the 2012 recall elections. In addition to ending the investigation, the conservative majority on the state's high court also decided that phony issue ad groups, like the Alliance, can legally coordinate their election activities with candidates.

Fall Election Activity

In early October, the Alliance spent an estimated $45,000 on two mailings and a radio ad that criticized Democratic candidate Art Shrader, who challenged incumbent GOP Rep. Ed Brooks for his 50th Assembly District seat, for supporting a state gas tax increase. The group also spent an estimated $15,000 on a mailing that criticized Democrat Howard White, challenger to incumbent GOP Rep. Kathy Bernier in the 68th Assembly District.