Once again, a statewide race sets a record for most expensive in Wisconsin history as campaign cash pours into the state.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

The final major campaign finance reports before the April 4 election for Wisconsin Supreme Court were due Monday, and they showed striking differences between the two candidates.

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the left-wing candidate, reported raising more than $13 million so far in 2023, including more than $12 million in the last six weeks alone. Her right-wing opponent, former Justice Daniel Kelly, reported raising just $2 million in the last six weeks, and a total of about $2.3 million in 2023.

That money is spent mainly on advertisements for TV, radio, print and the web.

On the independent spending side, the right is winning, though with a much smaller margin. Organizations like Super Political Action Committees, known as Super PACs, are banned from coordinating with the campaigns. But they can raise and spend unlimited amounts, and have spent $12.3 million supporting Kelly or opposing Protasiewicz, while groups supporting Protasiewicz or opposing Kelly have spent about $10.2 million, according to estimates from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks political spending in the state.

“It’s turning into a race between how fast Ben Wikler can speed dial multi-millionaires on his side versus how fast Richard Uihlein can transfer funds electronically into the PACs that he controls.”

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

The contest set the record for most expensive Wisconsin Supreme Court race ever at the end of February, and the money keeps pouring in.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, credited Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler with continuing his recent, successful run of overseeing huge fundraising for the party and its candidates. Rothschild also noted that billionaire right-wing donor Richard Uihlein, founder and owner of the shipping supplies company ULINE, continues to inject millions into the race.

“It’s turning into a race between how fast Ben Wikler can speed dial multi-millionaires on his side versus how fast Richard Uihlein can transfer funds electronically into the PACs that he controls,” Rothschild said.

“That’s really not how our democracy is supposed to operate,” he continued. “The voices of average citizens in Wisconsin are being drowned out by all this money on both sides. The money from outside Wisconsin raises the question as to whether we really have self-rule here.”


Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks political spending in the state

The race has attracted so much money in part because the state Supreme Court will likely be deciding huge issues soon, such as the legality of abortion in Wisconsin, as well as the legality of the redistricting process.

Kelly has received $20,000 — the maximum donation allowed by state law to a Supreme Court candidate — from both Diane Hendricks and her daughter Kim Hendricks, the Beloit-area billionaire family who owns and runs ABC Supply, from both Richard Uihlein and his wife Liz, from both Rite-Hite CEO Michael White and his wife Cathy, and from Lou and Michelle Gentine, co-owners of Sargento Foods, as well as current Sargento CEO Louie Gentine. John Schlifske, CEO of Northwestern Mutual, and his wife Kim, each gave Kelly the maximum too.

Protasiewicz has received the maximum $20,000 from a much longer list of donors including former Milwaukee Bucks owner and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, Schlitz heir and Milwaukee-area philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, major Democratic donor Karla Jurvetson and from several members of the wealthy Milwaukee-area Lubar family.

But about $8 million of Protasiewicz's total campaign haul has come from one source: the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The million-dollar loophole 

In what has become a regular occurrence, extremely wealthy people from inside and outside the state are also dumping huge sums of cash into the state’s political parties, the bulk of it to the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Loopholes in state campaign finance law allow individuals to make unlimited donations to political parties, circumventing the limits on giving directly to candidates. The loopholes also allow political parties to turn around and give unlimited donations to candidates. That creates a firehose of cash from billionaires to candidates, circumventing the limits to campaigns.

Reid Hoffman, who founded LinkedIn and PayPal, wrote a check in January to the Wisconsin Democratic Party for $2 million. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose family owns Hyatt Hotels, and the investor and major liberal donor George Soros, each wrote a check to the Wisconsin Democratic Party for $1 million.

The largest donors to the Republican Party of Wisconsin this year start with Liz Uihlein, who has given the party $500,000, David Herro, an investment manager from Miami Beach who has given $150,000, and Louis Gentine of Sargento Foods has given $100,000.

Democrats, gerrymandered by Republicans into weak minorities in the Wisconsin State Legislature, have offered bills that would close the loopholes and place limits on donations to and from political parties, but Republicans in the majority have ignored them.

So Democrats in Wisconsin have learned to play by the new rules created by Republicans, and are now winning, at least in the fundraising game.

That’s concerning to some. And not just Republicans.

“I hope the Democrats don’t learn the wrong lesson from this race,” Rothschild said. “At the moment, they are beating the Republicans at Republicans’ own game. Long term, there are more billionaires and multi-millionaires on the conservative side.  At some point, Democrats aren’t going to be able to keep winning this money chase from the big donors. Even if they are, we need fundamental campaign finance reform so the voices of regular citizens in Wisconsin aren’t being drowned out.”

Donors who have given the max to Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, left-wing candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court

DONOR CITY STATE OCCUPATION DONATION
BEAM, JACK CHICAGO IL LAWYER $20,000
BERGER, DANIEL PHILADELPHIA PA EMPLOYED $20,000
BURNS, TIMOTHY W MIDDLETON WI ATTORNEY $20,000
BURNSTEIN, CLIFFORD NEW YORK NY $20,000
CONNELL, WILLIAM J (LIAM) LAKE FOREST IL RETIRED $20,000
DOW, ABIGAIL TULSA OK INSTRUCTIONAL COACH $20,000
DOW, RACHEL TULSA OK HEALTH EDUCATOR $20,000
DUKER, MARILYNN PIKESVILLE MD CEO $20,000
EGERMAN, JOANNE WESTON MA NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
EGERMAN, PAUL WESTON MA NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
ERDMAN, MARY MADISON WI NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
ESCOBAR, MARTHA NEW YORK NY NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
EYCHANER, FRED J CHICAGO IL PHILANTHROPIST $20,000
FLESSAS, JULIE MEQUON WI ATTORNEY $20,000
FOWLER, AMY GOLDMAN RHINEBECK NY AUTHOR $20,000
FREDERICK, DAVID WASHINGTON DC ATTORNEY $20,000
GINSBURG, HANA NEW YORK NY CONCERT DANCER $20,000
GUND, AGNES NEW YORK NY RETIRED $20,000
HASELOW, JUSTINE P EDINA MN RETIRED $20,000
HASELOW, ROBERT E EDINA MN MD PRESIDENT $20,000
HEISING, MARK W ATHERTON CA INVESTOR $20,000
JURVETSON, KARLA TINKLENBERG LOS ALTOS CA PHYSICIAN $20,000
KAUFER, STEPHEN NEWTON MA RETIRED $20,000
KOHL, HERBERT H (HERB) MILWAUKEE WI PHILANTHROPIST $20,000
LAINER, LEE LOS ANGELES CA NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
LAINER, LUIS LOS ANGELES CA NOT EMPLOYED $20,000
LAUFER, ERIC NEW YORK NY EMPLOYED $20,000
LAWSON, ERICA F SAN FRANCISCO CA PHYSICIAN $20,000
LAWSON, JEFFREY SAN FRANCISCO CA CEO $20,000
LEHOCZKY, SANDOR NEW YORK NY MANAGING DIRECTOR/FINANCE $20,000
LUBAR, MADELEINE KELLY MILWAUKEE WI COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER $20,000
LUBAR, MARIANNE S RIVER HILLS WI HOMEMAKER $20,000
LUBAR, SHELDON B RIVER HILLS WI CHAIRMAN $20,000
LUBAR, SUSAN WI PRESIDENT $20,000
LYNN, SOPHIA MCLEAN VA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR $20,000
MCCLAVE, JAMES NEW YORK NY TRADER $20,000
MESSINGER, ALIDA ROCKEFELLER AFTON MN COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER $20,000
MEYER, GWENDOLYN SONTHEIM MINNETONKA MN INVESTOR $20,000
MILLER, JOHN CHARLES KOHLER WI NONE $20,000
MILLER, JOHN W KOHLER WI PRINCIPAL $20,000
MINSKY-PRIMUS, LISA S NEW YORK NY PHYSICIAN $20,000
MINSKY, YARON NEW YORK NY FINANCE $20,000
PIGOTT, GAYE T SEATTLE WA HOMEMAKER $20,000
PRITZKER, J.B. CHICAGO IL GOVERNOR $20,000
RANDALL, GIOVANNA NEW YORK NY EMPLOYED $20,000
ROLFS, PAMELA (PAM) MIDDLETON WI ATTORNEY $20,000
RYAN, VINCENT BOSTON MA CHAIRMAN $20,000
SCHUSTERMAN, LYNN J TULSA OK RETIRED $20,000
SCHUSTERMAN, STACY HELEN TULSA OK EXECUTIVE $20,000
SELL, GREGORY J FRANKLIN WI ATTORNEY $20,000
SHENKER, SCOTT BERKELEY CA SCIENTIST $20,000
SIMONS, ELIZABETH DIANE (LIZ) ATHERTON CA RETIRED $20,000
SNOWDON, JR, TED W. NEW YORK NY THEATRICAL PRODUCER $20,000
STOLTE, CHRIS SEATTLE WA RETIRED $20,000
STRYKER, PAT FORT COLLINS CO PHILANTHROPIST $20,000
UIHLEIN, LYNDE B MILWAUKEE WI INVESTOR $20,000
WOLFE, THOMAS R. MADISON WI NOT EMPLOYED $20,000

Donors who have given the max to former Justice Daniel Kelly, right-wing candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court

DONOR CITY STATE OCCUPATION DONATION
ALYWARD, RICHARD NEENAH WI RETIRED $20,000
BUHOLZER, DAVE MONROE WI CHEESEMAKER $20,000
FOX, BRENT A JANESVILLE WI MANAGER $20,000
GENTINE, LOUIE PLYMOUTH WI EXECUTIVE $20,000
GENTINE, LOUIS ELKHART LAKE WI RETIRED $20,000
GENTINE, MICHELLE ELKHART LAKE WI RETIRED $20,000
HENDRICKS, DIANE M BELOIT WI CHAIRMAN $20,000
HENDRICKS, KIMBERLEE K (KIM) JANESVILLE WI RETIRED $20,000
KIEFFER, LYNN R PRINCETON WI RETIRED $20,000
KIEFFER, STEPHEN G PRINCETON WI RETIRED $20,000
LEO, LEONARD MCLEAN VA $20,000
MINAHAN, DANIEL J FOX POINT WI CEO $20,000
MINAHAN, SUSAN FOX POINT WI HOMEMAKER $20,000
NELSON, AMY OCONOMOWOC WI BUSINESS OWNER $20,000
SCHLIFKE, JOHN ELM GROVE WI EXECUTIVE $20,000
SCHLIFKE, KIM ELM GROVE WI HOMEMAKER $20,000
SCHLOEMER, JAMES H. MENOMONEE FALLS WI RETIRED $20,000
SHAFFER, JOHN CHICAGO IL BUSUINESS OWNER $20,000
UIHLEIN, ELIZABETH A (LIZ) LAKE BLUFF IL CEO $20,000
UIHLEIN, RICHARD ELLIS (DICK) LAKE FOREST IL CHAIRMAN $20,000
WHITE, CATHY RIVER HILLS WI HOMEMAKER $20,000
WHITE, MICHAEL RIVER HILLS WI $20,000
WILSON, DONALD S. MIDDLETON WI RETIRED $20,000
YOUNG , SANDRA RACINE WI RETIRED $20,000
YOUNG JR, FRED M RACINE WI RETIRED $20,000

Hina Suzuki and Jessica Sonkin contributed to this story.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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