Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky and her allies have repeatedly pilloried her opponent, state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, for his close ties to conservative special interest groups and the Republican Party.
“This is a guy who was endorsed by Donald Trump,” Karofsky recently said of Kelly. “This is someone who is running his Supreme Court campaign out of the Wisconsin GOP headquarters.”
But after finishing a distant second in the February primary, Karofsky and her campaign made an interesting decision: They turned to a political party and special interest groups for help.
Records filed this week show that Karofsky’s campaign has accepted nearly $1.3 million in cash and in-kind contributions from the state Democratic Party. The party covered such expenses as $258,000 in consulting fees and $50,000 for a survey.
In addition, the Dane County judge took in a total of $170,000 from such liberal groups as AFSCME, affiliates of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Planned Parenthood and the Teamsters.
Karofsky and Kelly face off in next Tuesday’s general election.
Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the active involvement of both parties in this contest makes clear just how partisan Supreme Court races have become, even though they are officially nonpartisan.
“It’s a joke — and a bad one — that races for Wisconsin Supreme Court are called nonpartisan. There’s nothing nonpartisan about them,” Rothschild said.
He added, “Everyone in politics in Wisconsin knows this, so let’s dispense with the fiction that these races are nonpartisan.”
In fact, Karofsky was so successful that she ended up raising more money than Kelly over the past seven weeks — after trailing him in the money game for most of the race.
Overall, Karofsky has now raised slightly more than $2.4 million since she entered the race last year, including $1.9 million that she has collected since Feb. 4, the date of the last campaign filing, and March 24. She has spent more than $1.7 million, leaving her campaign with a cash balance of $643,000.
Kelly, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, has pulled in a total of $1.6 million for his campaign, including just under $600,000 in the past seven weeks. That is less than a third of what Karofsky’s campaign raised during the same period.
That income included a little more than $65,000 in in-kind donations from the state Republican Party for robocalls and mailers and an $18,000 contribution from the Wisconsin Realtors Association.
So far, Kelly’s campaign has spent nearly $1.2 million, leaving him with just about $400,000 in cash on hand.
In short, the recent surge in donations means that Karofsky holds an $800,000-plus edge over Kelly in the amount of funds raised. She also has about $247,000 more in her campaign war chest.
Sam Roecker, spokesman for Karofsky, touted the campaign’s fundraising in recent months.
“Wisconsinites are ready for change, and they’re ready for a justice who has a strong record of applying the rule of law in a fair and independent way,” Roecker said Tuesday.
But Charles Nichols, campaign manager for Kelly, said Karofsky’s actions have not matched her words. She has been highly critical of the incumbent justice yet has funded her campaign with money from unions, political parties and special interest groups.
Those groups, Nichols said, will want something in return if she wins.
“Democrats and liberal special interest groups are dumping millions into Karofsky’s campaign because they know she’ll eagerly serve as their political puppet to help rig the system in their favor,” Nichols said.
Roecker pushed back by saying Karofsky’s point has been that her opponent can’t separate his personal ties to conservative special interests with the way he rules on the court. Roecker added that Karofsky has said she will recuse herself from any cases involving the state Democratic Party.
Along with spending by the candidates, outside interest groups have dropped $3.1 million on independent expenditures in the Supreme Court race, with $1.9 million favoring Karofsky and $1.2 million in support of Kelly, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Rothschild, the head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, declined to say — for now — whether he thinks Karofsky is being a hypocrite with her criticism of Kelly and her own fundraising.
“It remains to be seen whether Judge Karofsky is being hypocritical when she attacks Justice Kelly for siding with his contributors,” Rothschild said. “If she’s elected, and she reflexively votes on the side of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin or on the side of the labor unions that have contributed to her or on the side of Planned Parenthood, then she’d fall into the hypocrite column.”
Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.
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