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Right-wing think tank tied to dark money jumps into Wisconsin Supreme Court race

The Republican State Leadership Committee placed a $200,000 ad buy in support of conservative Justice Daniel Kelly last week.

By Matt Cohen - March 28, 2023
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Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Republican-backed Dan Kelly participates in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Republican-backed Dan Kelly participates in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The Republican State Leadership Committee, a right-wing think tank and political organization, announced last week that it will spend $200,000 in Wisconsin in support of conservative justice Daniel Kelly’s run for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The bulk of the money will fund a 17-second television ad that will air across the state and that contrasts images related to COVID-19 guidelines, gun violence protests, and police reform protests with headlines about the state Supreme Court striking down COVID-19 restrictions. After asking, “What makes Wisconsin great?” the ad’s narrator says, “We’re independent thinkers. We don’t let the D.C. outsiders tell us how to live. When the liberal elite try to set aside our rule of law, we stand in their way. Don’t California our Wisconsin. Vote Dan Kelly for Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

But the RSLC has its own history of political spending and influence in state and judicial elections.

The group describes itself as “the largest organization of  Republican state leaders in the country and the only national committee whose mission is to elect Republicans to multiple down-ballot, state-level offices in all 50 states.” Fulfilling that mission usually comes in the form of what the news outlet Common Dreams calls a”dark money bomb,” a large influx of last-minute financial support for a candidate, usually in the form of TV and radio ads, mailers, and digital advertising in the days leading up to an election.

The Judicial Fairness Initiative, a project of the RSLC that targets state judicial elections, has spent just over $150,000 on mailers and digital advertising to help Kelly’s current campaign, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks state political spending.

The RSLC is seen by experts on campaign finance as a dark money machine. In the 2020 election cycle, the group’s top donors were the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two major right-wing organizations that, thanks to their 501(c)(4) tax status, can give an unlimited amount of money to groups like the RSLC and don’t have to disclose their financial contributors.

Over the past several election cycles, the RSLC ramped up its spending on state judicial races and in the fall of 2022 it spent a record amount on state supreme court races — at least $5 million. More than $2 million was targeted at races in Ohio, where all three candidates supported by the group won their elections.

The RSLC’s latest effort is not the first time the group has gotten involved in a Wisconsin judicial election. In 2020, when Kelly ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court, the group spent more than $800,000 to support his campaign in the days leading up to the election.

The previous year, the group spent more than $1.3 million on last-minute ads to help conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn win his election. In a since-deleted press release, the RSLC took credit for the win, writing that the Judicial Fairness Initiative’s “full-scale, micro-targeted voter education project of $1.3 million … helped carry conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn to victory.”

It’s unclear whether the RSLC plans to spend more than $200,000 to help Kelly win the election, which has shattered records to become the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history. In a statement to the Daily Caller, Dee Duncan, the president of the RSLC’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, said that the group will “continue to invest the necessary resources needed to help Dan Kelly get across the finish line next month.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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