- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Fundraising and ad spending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court primary suggest a flood of money will pour into the race between incumbent Rebecca Bradley and JoAnne Kloppenburg, a watchdog group said Wednesday.

The candidates, including failed challenger Joe Donald, reported having raised nearly $1 million combined, and total broadcast TV ad spending hit nearly $725,000, Justice at Stake reported.

Donald and Kloppenburg have criticized the amount of “dark money” being spent on a race for a court position that is meant to be nonpartisan.

Bradley received support from more than $440,000 in TV spending from a conservative group, Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, that doesn’t disclose its donors. It was the only such spending in the primary, according to the nonpartisan nonprofit group.

The candidates were fairly even in fundraising, with Kloppenburg leading at about $335,000.

Justice at Stake’s executive director, Susan Liss, said in a statement that the spending is disturbing. “High election spending, harsh ads and campaign controversies hurt public confidence in courts,” she said. “With research increasingly showing that campaign cash influences court decisions, it’s time to take politics out of how judges are selected.”

Her message echoed Donald’s concession statement Tuesday, which read, “The influence of partisan politics and special interest money has a terrible impact on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and our entire judicial system.”

During the primary campaign, Donald said he didn’t receive support from outside groups and challenged Bradley and Kloppenburg to publicly reject such support themselves. Kloppenburg says she didn’t benefit from outside spending in the primary, though liberal groups heavily supported her 2011 state Supreme Court bid against Justice David Prosser, a campaign she narrowly lost.

Bradley has said outside groups that run campaign ads are simply exercising their free speech rights and that it’s not her place to ask them not to.

“I hope that any third parties that choose to participate maintain positive messages focused on the qualifications of the candidates and what I consider to be the most important issue in the race, judicial philosophy,” she said.

Kloppenburg campaign manager Melissa Mulliken said in a statement that politics and unregulated special interest spending can undermine public confidence. She said candidates can’t control what outside groups do, but added that “any political ad, whether aired by a candidate or a third party, should be factual and not attempt to mislead voters.”

Bradley, who was appointed to the high court by Gov. Scott Walker in October, is widely considered part of a 5-2 conservative majority. The court has been heavily scrutinized over recent decisions on issues such as voter ID and secret investigations into potential political wrongdoing.

Kloppenburg and Donald were among the critics who said the rulings showed political bias from a panel that is supposed to be impartial. Bradley, for her part, has said it would be unethical to comment on rulings and that it could taint future litigation.

The incumbent drew about 45 percent of the primary vote with about 252,000 votes. Kloppenburg took 43 percent with around 244,000. Donald drew about 68,000.

Kloppenburg says she plans to reach out to Donald voters to support her against Bradley. Bradley, meanwhile, has said she draws support from across the political spectrum and that she expects that to continue.

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Follow Greg Moore at https://twitter.com/writingmoore

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