Supreme Court Justice David Prosser is more interested in protecting the Catholic Church from scandal than protecting children from a molesting priest, and he's a "rubber stamp" for Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
His opponent in the April 5 election, JoAnne Kloppenburg, is a judicial flop, turned down for several judgeships, and she hasn't vowed to be tough enough on crime. She's also a job killer who as an assistant attorney general has prosecuted hard-working farmers for violating the state's environmental laws.
If you vote on the basis of radio and TV ads, and apparently some of you do, keep your eyes open. In coming days you're likely to learn that the temperamentally challenged Prosser has ranted against colleagues on the court and was knee-deep in the 2001 caucus scandal. And Kloppenburg is a far-left wacko with ties to activist Ben Manski, who ran for the state Assembly in Madison last year on the Green Party ticket.
All of these allegations, if not true, contain at least an element of "truthiness," Stephen Colbert's term for that fact-deficient, illogical kind of truth that's so often a hallmark of political rhetoric.
But is the war of negativity in this race an even match? A UW-Madison expert on political communications suspects that in the scramble to find mud to sling in the final week of the campaign, Prosser backers are outgunned.
"There's more ammunition against Prosser than there is against Kloppenburg," says Dhavan Shah, who directs the Mass Communication Research Center at the university. "And the people who are campaigning on Kloppenburg's behalf are certainly making the most of that."
Under normal circumstances Prosser would be riding his incumbency to victory, but many observers put the race at a dead heat. So while Kloppenburg has spent the last 21 years quietly as a prosecutor with the state Department of Justice, Prosser is contending with a very public past.
The "priest" ad, bankrolled by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, is a prime example. The ad accuses Prosser of failing to call for a police investigation into allegations against convicted child-molesting Catholic priest John Patrick Feeney after the priest improperly touched two brothers. And it accuses him of working with a bishop to send Feeney to another community to avert scandal. PolitiFact Wisconsin rated the ad "barely true," pointing out that it left out the reasons for Prosser's decision, one of which was the victims didn't tell him all the facts.
Another Greater Wisconsin ad labels Prosser, a former GOP Assembly speaker, as a "rubber stamp" for Walker.
Greater Wisconsin's website ProsserequalsWalker.com lays out many more avenues of possible attack: Prosser's admission, which he nearly had to make in court, that he was part and parcel of the culture of illegal campaigning that led to the 2001 legislative caucus scandal; his anti-abortion stances; his tea party rally appearance; his votes against pensioners and victims; his vote to clear fellow conservative Justice Michael Gableman of judicial ethics violations for a misleading attack ad in 2008; his role in the court's adoption of judicial rules written by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Realtors, two groups that are frequently before the court -- you get the idea. In the final week of the campaign, Prosser is playing major defense.
Meanwhile, we'll have to wait and see if conservative groups can find any dirt on Kloppenburg. So far there's been no attention-grabbers that could compete with a child-molesting priest. A radio ad from Wisconsin Club for Growth points out that she has prosecuted farmers for violating environmental laws, thus somehow killing jobs, and that even a Democratic governor passed her over for judgeships.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce unveiled an ad Tuesday that shows Kloppenburg saying: "I never said I was tough on crime." That remark was in response to a reporter's question at a March 21 debate about whether an earlier campaign ad touting her toughness might not signal that she wouldn't give criminals a fair shake. If the sentence wasn't edited, we'd hear that Kloppenburg considers herself "tough and fair as a prosecutor." (The question comes at the 27-minute mark in the debate.)
Shah says the attacks on Kloppenburg have, from a quality standpoint, fallen short.
"There hasn't been the level of professionalism I'd expect," says Shah.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a watchdog group that is monitoring high court campaign spending, nearly $1.4 million had been spent on political advertising in the race, 82 percent of it by special interest groups. That's for ads that had hit the air as of last Sunday.
According to Kloppenburg's campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken, the campaign's media buyer has tracked third-party spending, including purchased air time for yet-to-run ads, at $4 million, nearing the record $4.8 million spent in 2008 in the race between Gableman and then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler.
Tuesday saw the introduction of three pro-Prosser TV ads: the one from WMC and two from the Prosser campaign, one of which clearly paints him as tough on crime. The other is a defense against the "priest" ad. In addition, two radio ads, one by the Prosser campaign and one by the Faith Family Freedom Fund, hit the air on Tuesday.
The slow start for the media battle for the Supreme Court was likely due to the millions spent on ads for and against Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to strip public workers of their bargaining rights, and over the governor's budget priorities. That media battle is dovetailing with what will be a blistering campaign for the high court.
Why all the negativity? Shah offers two reasons: First, people remember negative ads. They tend to mobilize an electorate in a way positive ads extolling the virtues of a candidate don't. Second, pro-Kloppenburg groups are taking full advantage of the bitterness and anger toward the Republican leadership by redirecting it toward Prosser.
"People are very angry," Shah says. "So I think it's something that can work in terms of corresponding to the public mood."
That doesn't mean we won't see more attack ads against Kloppenburg. The conservative majority on the high court is threatened by Kloppenburg's strong showing, and conservative groups are ponying up.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce -- which invested about $4 million to get two conservative justices elected in 2007 and 2008 to tip the balance of power on the court and which has sunk $1.3 milllion into this year's race so far -- has asked for contributions so it can hit Kloppenburg hard. In a letter to members, WMC mapped out a possible strategy to label her as a far-left extremist (she endorsed, and was endorsed by, the Green Party's Manski) and a pathetic dud in her quest for a judgeship.
Prosser and Kloppenburg have both engaged in their share of negative comments on the campaign trail. Prosser has already played the liberal extremist card during candidate debates. And Kloppenburg has been relentless in labeling Prosser a Republican partisan.
But because the candidates are about tapped out -- each has agreed to public financing spending limits -- the negative advertising to come will be carried out mostly by proxy. And thanks to the inflamed political atmosphere, Shah says, Kloppenburg stands to gain the most.
"If the enthusiasm gap is what pollsters are saying it is, I'd expect turnout to be higher on the Democratic side," he says. "And I think that'll be at least partly a function of a strong mobilizing effort through political campaigning."
Just for fun, I've included a number of links to really bad negative ads, starting with a compilation of negative judicial campaign ads from around the country, Michael Gableman's included.
Here's what I'd call a light-hearted scorcher from the Milwaukee County executive race.
CNN did a good job of compiling the dirtiest ads of 2010.
Here's what is surely the low point of Elizabeth Dole's political career.
And here is the granddaddy of them all: The Willie Horton ad that helped George H.W. Bush send Michael Dukakis to the political graveyard.