Tea Party Express Jumps Into Wisconsin Judicial Race

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 10:49 AM EDT

In recent years, judicial elections have been among some of the nastiest in the country. But next week's election for a seat on the Wisconsin state supreme court might go down in history as one of the worst. The election comes smack in the middle of Wisconsin's epic fight between the GOP-controlled legislature and governor's office and the state's public employee unions. The political warfare that wracked the state capital for weeks over Gov. Scott Walker's bill to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights has moved to the courts, where opponents of the law have filed a host of lawsuits to prevent its implementation. The fate of Walker's bill will eventually be decided by a slim margin on the state's highest court, making the stakes in the race extremely high. As a result, out-of-state interest groups have been pouring money into the judicial campaign. This week, the Tea Party Express upped the ante by pledging to raise tens of thousands of dollars to re-elect Justice David Prosser, an incumbent judge who liberals have said will be nothing more than a rubber stamp for Walker.

Tea Party Express is the California-based political action committee created by a group of GOP political consultants, which helped elect Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). It also backed Alaska's Joe Miller in his surprise upset of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary last year, demonstrating the PAC's political savvy and fundraising prowess. Tea Party Express is the largest and most active PAC associated with the tea party movement. On Tuesday it was sending out appeals to supporters seeking to raise $15,000 in 18 hours to launch a new wave of TV ads in Wisconsin. Sal Russo, the PAC's founder, wrote in an email that because the group has created a state PAC for this particular campaign, "there are NO contribution limits, and corporate contributions ARE accepted."

Both candidates in the race have taken public money for the election so are not eligible to accept private contributions. That's why the campaign is being waged almost entirely by third partys like Tea Party Express, which will be able to have an outsized impact on the race. Tea Party Express, of course, isn't the only outside group getting involved in the judicial campaign. The Club for Growth has pledged $300,000 to supoprt Prosser, and liberal and union activists have created their own outside spending operation, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, that has said it will spend $3 million to defeat Prosser. Prosser, a Republican who makes up part of a 4-3 conservative majority on the court, served in the state assembly with Walker and voted with him 95 percent of the time, according to liberal activists working to unseat him. Liberal activists have run ads against him that say "Prosser is Walker," turning the race into a referendum on the GOP agenda.

Unions and liberals are backing state Justice Department attorney JoAnne Kloppenburg. Tea Party Express' new ads suggest that Kloppenburg is a four-time loser, having failed to land other judicial plum spots she's aspired to. But the campaign is likely to get even nastier in the last few days. The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee has already aired ads indicating that 30 years ago Prosser, then a district attorney, failed to prosecute an alleged pedophile priest who went on to molest many more kids. As the campaign comes down to the wire and more outside corporate money pours in, the attacks are only likely to escalate. Whether Tea Party Express can work its magic to save Prosser from the extremely angry and motivated union voters remains to be seen.

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