- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - The first time JoAnne Kloppenburg ran for Wisconsin Supreme Court, much of the focus was on Gov. Scott Walker as the race came in the middle of protests against his union-busting law.

Five years later, the spotlight is once again on someone else - Kloppenburg’s opponent Rebecca Bradley and her college writings that slammed gays, feminists and abortion rights.

Kloppenburg, an appeals court judge, has been largely defined in both races by attack ads coming from conservative groups supporting her rivals. Kloppenburg’s strategy this time has been to emphasize Bradley’s ties to Walker, but her success on April 5 may depend on whether she’s done enough to define herself, received enough support from liberal groups and capitalized enough on Bradley’s troubles.

Kloppenburg, 62, casts herself as the candidate with “superior judicial and legal qualifications,” a “nonpartisan background” and “proven track record as an independent and fair judge.” She spent more than 20 years as an assistant attorney general before she ran unopposed and was elected to the state Court of Appeals in 2012. As the presiding judge of her appeals court district, she boasts that she’s issued hundreds of opinions “in all different areas of the law” during her time on the bench.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, believes Kloppenburg has been aggressive enough and said the labor group supports her because she has “the integrity and experience to do right by the working people of Wisconsin.”

Opponents, however, have painted Kloppenburg as a biased liberal. The Republican Party of Wisconsin notes her union support and says Kloppenburg has donated $2,000 to Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold since 1997.

The conservative group Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has branded Kloppenburg as soft on crime in three attack ads. The first of these references a sex offender and begins with the words “conviction overturned.” But Kloppenburg campaign manager Melissa Mulliken says the ad relies on an “absolutely false” claim, because the offender’s conviction wasn’t overturned and he’s still in prison.

In touting her qualifications, Kloppenburg frequently pivots to Bradley’s career and says it doesn’t compare. “She owes her judicial career to Scott Walker,” Kloppenburg told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

The Republican governor has appointed Bradley, 44, to three judgeships, starting with a seat on the Milwaukee County bench in 2012 and most recently a spot on the state Supreme Court in October. Kloppenburg has said in debates that the “fast-track appointments” suggest Bradley’s rise is due to political connections rather than legal qualifications.

Bradley campaign manager Luke Martz said that her career “has been built on hard work, a strong judicial philosophy, and respect for her peers.”

“JoAnne Kloppenburg’s campaigns have been conducted in a vicious and personal manner, suggesting that her career is built on something much different,” he said.

The liberal One Wisconsin Now recently provided Kloppenburg a boost when it uncovered things Bradley wrote as an undergrad at Marquette, calling gays “queers” and “degenerates” and comparing them with drug addicts who “essentially kill themselves and others through their own behavior.” Bradley has repeatedly apologized.

Yet, Kloppenburg hasn’t seized the opportunity as aggressively as others might have. The comments had been absent from her campaign’s TV ads until a new spot that went out Friday, and in a series of debates Kloppenburg more aggressively went after Bradley’s judicial career and conservative ties, reinforcing the perception that the incumbent is part of a 5-2 conservative majority on the court.

There’s been less money spent on advertising in this race compared to 2011, when Kloppenburg challenged Justice David Prosser, but that’s due in part to Walker’s successful plan to cut collective bargaining rights, which brought in outside spending from labor and business groups. In that race, conservative groups spent about $2.2 million for Prosser, who narrowly beat Kloppenburg despite the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee spending nearly $1.4 million on TV ads.

This time, the conservative Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has spent about $1.2 million on months of TV ads supporting Bradley, according an analysis of Federal Communications Commission records by campaign watchdog group Justice at Stake. As of Thursday, Bradley’s campaign booked about $196,000 worth of TV time.

Meanwhile, the Greater Wisconsin Committee has booked pro-Kloppenburg ads, about $265,000 worth that will start airing statewide Monday. Kloppenburg’s campaign has booked about $223,000 worth of TV time.

Milwaukee County Judge Joe Donald, who lost to Kloppenburg and Bradley in the primary, says the ad-spending disparity can be overcome because Kloppenburg has a strong ground game. During the primary, Kloppenburg often said she was the only candidate who had been to every county and that she used the visits to build a broad array of support.

“You can’t just rely on a media buy to make a personal touch,” said Donald, who endorses Kloppenburg. “She should keep doing what she’s doing - what she did to get within 2 points in the primary. Work her network and get her message out.”

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

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