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Bradley Kloppenburg

Rebecca Bradley and JoAnne Kloppenburg

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley and State Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg will face each other in April for a seat on the state's highest court.

Tuesday's primary results set up another high-pitched battle for ideological control of the court, although the result will not change the conservative-leaning majority on the court. Bradley has the backing of conservatives, while Kloppenburg is supported by liberals.

The two defeated Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald in a race that ended up being closer than some Democratic observers expected. Last week, Donald campaign manager Andy Suchorski said he expected Bradley to receive 55 percent to 60 percent of the vote. 

"I'm really excited and I'm really glad to see that my message has apparently really resonated with the voters," said Bradley, who received 45 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts reporting. She said she believes voters appreciated that she has "run a very positive campaign" that focused on her experience and judicial philosophy. 

In a race against Kloppenburg, Bradley said, the state appeals court judge's name recognition from her 2011 race against Justice David Prosser will be one hurdle to overcome on April 5.

Kloppenburg, who received 43 percent of the vote, said she was "very heartened and gratified by the message that has been sent by this vote tonight, and that is that people do not want partisan politics and special interests on the court."

Kloppenburg said with this race she is "building on the 750,000 votes" she received in 2011.

"Since then, people understand how important the work of the Supreme Court is," she said, adding she would be reaching out to residents who voted for Donald.  

Donald said Tuesday that his campaign struggled to overcome heavy outside spending from the conservative group Wisconsin Alliance for Reform on behalf of Bradley, and Kloppenburg's name recognition.

"But as I indicated to all my supporters tonight, I am very pleased with the message that I got out there," he said. "It was well received, and I don't think citizens of this state have heard the last of Judge Joe Donald."

Donald said he will now consider whether he will make a second run for a future opening on the court.

Bradley, the incumbent, was appointed to the court by Gov. Scott Walker in October after the death of Justice N. Patrick Crooks. It was the third time Walker had appointed her to a judicial position in as many years. 

Kloppenburg lost in 2011 to conservative-backed Prosser in a close race seen as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker and his efforts to curtail collective bargaining by public sector workers.

While officially nonpartisan, Supreme Court races draw heavy spending from outside conservative and liberal groups.

Bradley's campaign was buoyed with six figures' worth of radio and television advertisements purchased by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform on her behalf.

The state Republican Party also sought signatures on Bradley's behalf to get her name on the primary ballot. On Tuesday, GOP party chairman Brad Courtney praised Bradley in a statement. 

"Justice Rebecca Bradley is an experienced judge who applies the law equally and impartially on the Wisconsin Supreme Court," he said. "She has bipartisan support from law enforcement leaders across the state who understand the need for justices to uphold the law, not create it. Unfortunately, Joanne Kloppenburg would advocate politically charged judicial activism and take the court backward by legislating from the bench in a partisan fashion."

Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said Bradley's lack of experience and "close ties to corporate special interests" are reasons to question the incumbent's qualifications.

"There are huge red flags for anyone concerned about an independent and ethical judiciary here," Ross said.

The largest and most influential player in court races in recent years is the state's business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. It has spent nearly $6 million on so-called issue advertising -- unregulated campaign ads that don't expressly call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate -- for conservative-leaning candidates in the past six Supreme Court races and will likely spend high again, the group said.

The Greater Wisconsin Committee, which supports liberals, has spent about $4 million on candidates who have won two of the six races. 

In 2011, the group spent $1.6 million on behalf of Kloppenburg, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates. Prosser was the beneficiary of $1.1 million spent by WMC and $520,000 spent by the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Citizens for a Strong America, an arm of Club for Growth, also spent $985,000 on advertising and other efforts to support Prosser or attack Kloppenburg.

The third-highest spending group in the past six Supreme Court races was the Wisconsin Club for Growth, dispensing $1.8 million since 2007.

Overall, conservative candidates receive more support from more groups than liberals. Since 2007, eight conservative-backing interest groups have spent $8.9 million on Supreme Court candidates, while two liberal backing groups have spent $4.3 million.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.