Former Vice President Joe Biden did a robocall on Monday. Eric Holder’s group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has spent $165,000. Tom Steyer’s organization is running a get-out-the-vote operation. And a pro-business advocacy group has dropped nearly a $1 million.
The recipients of this political largess aren’t running for a governor’s seat or the Senate or even a high-profile House race. Rather, they are the two candidates duking it out for a seat on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court in a race that comes to a close April 3. The contest pits Rebecca Dallet, a Milwaukee County Judge and national Democratic favorite, against Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, who has the backing of, among others, the National Rifle Association and Republican Governor Scott Walker.
So far, an excess of $2.5 million has been spent on TV ads in the election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s not an altogether remarkable figure. But the parachuting in of national figures combined with that investment, demonstrates the degree to which parties and allied outside groups have put an increasing premium on judicial races.
At the start of 2017, 20 out of 38 states that elect their justices had at least one sitting justice who had been involved in a $1 million-plus election—compared to just seven states holding that distinction in 1999. And though it’s a non-presidential election year, the trend could very well continue through 2018, as Democrats hope to capitalize on their current electoral momentum with 74 judicial seats in 32 states in play in 2018.
The framework of the elections vary state by state and for years, conservative-leaning local groups have often paid more interest and attention to judicial contests than their Democratic counterparts. Wisconsin, Democrats hope, will be emblematic of a new political dynamic as the party looks to more forcefully target all corners of electoral politics, from congressional seats, to statehouses, to the countries’ courts, its district attorneys and even sheriffs.
“Increasingly, I think, us along with a lot of progressive actors have really felt that elections pose one of the most powerful ways to change policy,” Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “In a large race...there are so many issues at play and it’s unlikely that you could just make criminal justice the sole major issue at play. Whereas in some of these smaller races, and ones that have less turnout, you can really make it a threshold question.”
Shakir said that the ACLU has spent roughly $120,000 on the Wisconsin race, in addition to conducting phone banks, canvassing and sending out mailers. They do not endorse or oppose candidates but rather engage in voter education. Its more aggressive dip into judicial contests likely won’t end in Wisconsin either. After this race, the group will be taking a look at the open seat on North Carolina’s Supreme Court though nothing is set in stone in terms of tangible action.
Holder’s involvement in Wisconsin has been a bit more direct. In addition to the $165,000 his group put into digital ads, the former Attorney General also spent a couple of days in the state in mid-March “encouraging people to get engaged and vote for Rebecca Dallet,” Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for NDRC told The Daily Beast.
Wisconsin is one of twelve states NDRC is targeting as part of its campaign to promote more fairly drawn congressional maps. While Rodenbush said they have not made specific decisions on down ballot races in the fall, he said the NDRC will look at the state Supreme Court contests, citing the importance of the body in producing fairer maps in states like Pennsylvania.
As of now, ACLU and NDRC are the two primary, progressive-minded national outfits that are focusing specifically on these judicial contests. But in the Wisconsin race, billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen America is also involved. Olivia Bercow, press secretary for the group, told The Daily Beast that their “youth organizing team” has been doing door-knocking in Madison and Milwaukee. Additionally, NextGen America is raising money for Dallet on its online fundraising platform.
“We're committed to electing progressives up and down the ballot in 2018, and expect to educate and turn out young voters in races from judicial contests to Congress to Governor,” Bercow said of future plans.
As for Biden, he came to the Wisconsin race by happenstance. The former Vice President only learned about Dallet’s contest after the executive director of his PAC, American Possibilities, talked to a state chair in Wisconsin who mentioned it, according to a Biden aide who described the backstory to The Daily Beast. Biden’s view, said the aide, was that “If I could be helpful, I’d like to be helpful.”
Along with his endorsement, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have backed Dallet as well.
The national exposure has been a boost for Dallet. But not without some negative side effects. Being so closely associated with some of the luminaries of the Democratic Party has led Screnock’s campaign to charge that she has “liberal activist policies.” Dallet didn’t help her cause when she reportedly told the crowd at a San Francisco fundraiser: “your values are our Wisconsin values that we’ve lost along the way.”
Republicans have taken notice of the Democratic efforts.
“Liberals and progressives, like Eric Holder, have an organized effort to pick off partisan state Supreme Courts to short-circuit the legislative branches of government to rig the system to their own advantage,” David James, spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee told The Daily Beast. “You have a very desperate Democrat party looking for alternate avenues to push their agenda because they have failed miserably at the state level in the past decade.”
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Republican Party of Wisconsin had contributed almost $300,000 to Screnock as of March 27. The NRA has dove in too, saying in its endorsement that Screnock “is a committed judge who will interpret the Constitution the way our Founding Fathers intended.”
Whoever wins on Tuesday will serve a ten-year term. If Dallet is the victor, she’ll reduce the conservative majority on the court from 5-2 to 4-3.
As judicial elections emerge as the next big frontier in big-moneyed politics, some experts worry about the pernicious side-effects, chief among them the increased politicization of the judiciary and the heightened likelihood of potential conflict of interests.
“I don’t think it’s good for our system to have judges looking like politicians in robes,” Alicia Bannon, Deputy Director for Program Management at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program told The Daily Beast.
Bannon said that at this point, it’s hard to predict what spending will look like in future 2018 contests because the investments are often concentrated in the last few weeks of the campaign. She noted also that in non-presidential election years, there is less spending overall. But, even so, the larger trend is still worrisome.
“It creates an appearance that special interests may be able to buy justice,” Bannon said.