Part 8 of a New Guide to the Right-Wing Groups Targeting the Wisconsin Supreme Court
By Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl
Charles Koch’s political operation, “Americans for Prosperity,” has spent nearly $400K so far on digital ads, mail, and door hangers to aid Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly, who graduated from televangelist Pat Robertson’s law school before it was fully accredited. Koch, who is one of the richest billionaires in the world and runs the second largest privately held corporation in the US, is bankrolling ads claiming Kelly is a “rule of law” judge, the same claim his political operatives made about Donald Trump’s nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett – who ignored the rule of law when they combined to overturn Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of legal precedents last summer. Koch has aided Leonard Leo’s efforts to pack the courts with right-wing extremists. Leo has personally donated to Kelly’s campaign, and funding conduits tied to his core groups have previously funded the Republican State Leadership Committee’s “Judicial Fairness Initiative,” which is also spending to back Kelly.
Zoom In: Kelly has boasted that his campaign will spend little, because those with interests before the Court are going to spend big. The biggest issue in the race is the state’s archaic 1849 abortion ban, which is now in play. He is backed by several groups aiming to make abortion illegal without exception, and his campaign is being buoyed by out-of-state billionaires like Koch and Dick Uihlein.
- Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has a record of backing extremists for the courts while claiming they are “rule of law” judges,1 like Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, who were hand-picked by Leo. Koch’s AFP in Wisconsin is making similar claims in its online, mail, phone and door-knocking campaign to try to get Kelly elected to the state Supreme Court.
- Koch deployed AFP and his front group “Concerned Veterans for America” to claim that Gorsuch “respects the rule of law and won’t legislate from the bench.”2 Gorsuch voted to overturn Roe last year. Gorsuch also imposed a totally invented “major questions” theory fueled by Koch to limit the power of the EPA to mitigate the climate changes underway.
- For Kavanaugh, Koch’s AFP made the same deceptive claims that Kavanaugh would “uphold the rule of law and won’t legislate from the bench,”3 and then, like Gorsuch, Kavanaugh voted to reverse legal precedents like Roe and judicial deference to the EPA.
- Koch’s effort to get Kavanaugh installed was led by Sarah Field, who had worked with Leonard Leo at the Federalist Society as Leo hand-picked the Supreme Court nominees Trump chose from. She previously worked for Koch and also helmed the influence operation launched by Ginny Thomas, Clarence Thomas’ spouse.
- Koch’s AFP political machine reached more than one million voters by phone or mail to pressure Senators to confirm him even as evidence emerged he had repeatedly lied under oath and had attempted to sexually assault Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.4
- Koch’s AFP made the same deceptive claims before the 2020 election that Amy Coney Barrett would “interpret the law as written and won’t legislate from the bench,”5 and then, with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, she immediately began voting to reverse legal precedents like Roe and embrace invented reasons to attack climate change mitigation and more.
- Koch’s AFP has previously misled Wisconsin voters about elections, specifically sending materials to likely Democratic voters that told them the wrong deadline for voting by mail and giving them a false address for returning ballots during the 2011 recall elections.6
- The address was actually the P.O. box of “Wisconsin Family Action” (WFA), a right-wing group trying to ban abortion and gay rights.7 WFA is closely tied to a group called “Alliance Defending Freedom” (ADF), a group that also attacks abortion and gay rights. Dan Kelly has worked with ADF in litigation assailing the rights of LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites.
- This was not a one-time thing. AFP sent similarly wrong information to voters in North Carolina. And, before that in WIsconsin during the 2010 mid-term elections AFP was identified as part of “a coordinated plot … targeting minority voters and college students in a possibly illegal ‘voter caging’ effort for voter suppression.”8
- Koch groups have amplified Trump’s discredited claims of voter fraud, despite Koch’s PR about his dislike for Trump himself and even though Koch’s political operations have been the subject of investigations and even record fines in elections.
- In 2013 a key component of Koch’s political operation called the “Center to Protect Patient Rights” (CPPR), which was led by Koch “money man” Sean Noble, secretly channeled $11 million through a group calling itself “Americans for Responsible Leadership” to oppose a tax increase and to support a proposal that would restrict the political power of unions. CPPR received the largest election fine in California history. The FEC also fined three Koch network-funded groups for illegally hiding the sources of their funding for millions of dollars worth of political ads in the 2010 elections. (Koch denied any wrongdoing.)
- AFP was also part of the criminal investigation into election/anti-corruption violations in Wisconsin during the recalls that was coordinated by RJ Johnson and Eric O’Keefe through Wisconsin Club for Growth (WSFG), though none of them were ever charged. The right-wing Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an edict killing that bipartisan criminal investigation and the right-wing state legislature then changed Wisconsin election law.
- Another AFP employee, John Connors, was the front man for the Johnson/O’Keefe group that WCFG funneled millions into, dubbed “Citizens for a Strong America,” to help David Prosser retain his seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2011 and aid other state legislators in their recall elections.
- AFP also appeared to subsidize the electoral campaign of Herman Cain, underwriting travel for his presidential campaign, which was led by Mark Block who had led AFP’s Wisconsin arm. Block had been barred from Wisconsin election campaigns previously for illegal coordination on a state Supreme Court race.
- Koch has relentlessly attacked climate mitigation, public health care, public schools, banking reforms, and anti-corruption laws. He has invested in Leonard Leo’s court-packing operations for years, using both his personal fortune and Koch Industries to fund the Federalist Society,9 which Leo co-chairs and uses as a way to screen opportunists for his effort to put right-wing operatives who share his extreme agenda into key positions on federal and state courts, as state attorneys general, and in other influential posts.10 Kelly was President of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Federalist Society and invited Carrie Severino, the head of the Judicial Crisis Network–a core Leo operation–to speak at one of its meetings. Leo has been involved in Wisconsin Supreme Court races since at least 2010, when documents show that he was tapped to secretly raise a six-figure sum to help keep Prosser on the state’s highest court.
The Bottom Line: An out-of-state billionaire with a long track record of trying to use his enormous wealth to influence elections to advance his extreme agenda is backing Dan Kelly through his local arm called “Americans for Prosperity.”
- Lisa Graves and Caroline Jones, “Charles Koch’s Political Network Raises Fears of Voter Fraud While Leaving a Trail of Alleged Election Violations,” True North Research (October 28, 2020). Link
- Lisa Graves, “Backgrounder on the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Barrett, Trump Advisor Leonard Leo, and Billionaire Charles Koch,” True North Research (October 26, 2020). Link
- Connor Gibson, “Charles Koch’s Shape-Shifting Influence Machine,” ExposedbyCMD (Aug. 30, 2022). Link
- Lisa Kaiser, “The New John Doe Investigation,” Shepherd Express (November 6, 2013). Link
- Ed Pilkington, “Because Scott Walker asked,” The Guardian (September 14, 2016). Link
- Lisa Graves, “I Wrote Some of the Stolen Memos That Brett Kavanaugh Lied to the Senate About; He should be impeached, not elevated,” Slate (Sept. 7, 2018). Link
- Nicholas Confessore, “Group Linked to Kochs Admits to Campaign Finance Violations,” The New York Times (October 14, 2013). Link
- “Koch brothers groups hit with massive fines from CREW complaint,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (July 13, 2016). Link
- Lisa Graves, “IRS Asked to Investigate Cain Campaign,” Democracy Now! (November 8, 2011). Link
- Brendan Fischer, “CMD Requests IRS Investigate Charity Accused of Fronting Private Jets for Presidential Campaign,” PRWatch/Center for Media and Democracy (November 7, 2011). Link
- Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg, “A Conservative Activists Behind-the-Scenes Campaign to Remake the Nation’s Courts,” Washington Post (May 21, 2019). Link
- Heidi Przybyla, “Dark money and special deals: How Leonard Leo and his friends benefited from his judicial activism,” Politico (Mar. 1, 2023). Link
- Ken Vogel and Shane Goldmacher, “An Unusual $1.6 Billion Donation Bolsters Conservatives,” New York Times (Aug. 22, 2022). Link
- Jane Mayer, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” Anchor Books/Penguin Random House (January 2016). Link
- Corrine Hess, “Big special interest money is flowing into the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Dan Kelly says that’s good for him.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (February 16, 2023). Link
- 2022 Americas PAC FEC page. Link
- 2022 APP PAC October quarterly FEC filing. Link
- 2022 APP PAC post-general FEC filing. Link
- 2022 Election Integrity PAC October monthly. Link
- 2022 Election Integrity PAC post-general filing. Link
- 2022 Election Integrity PAC pre-general filing. Link
- 2022 Restoration PAC October quarterly filing. Link
- 2022 Restoration PAC post-general FEC filing. Link
- 2022 Restoration PAC pre-general FEC filing. Link
- American Principles Project PAC Wisconsin independent expenditures filing. Link
- Friends of Justice Dan Kelly 2023 pre-general filing. Link
- People who Play by the Rules PAC page by the Center for Illinois Politics. Link
About this series. Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl have been covering outside spending in state supreme court races since 2019, including in Wisconsin. Graves has lived in Wisconsin for more than a decade and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse before attending Cornell Law School. Vorpahl graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. True North Research is a national watchdog group, and Graves is the President of the Board of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which she previously led for eight years, writing and editing numerous Wisconsin and national stories.
Graves received the Milwaukee Press Club’s “Excellence in Journalism” Award for her coverage of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2011. Her investigations of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALECexposed”) have won an “Izzy”/I.F. Stone Award and the Association for Education in Journalism’s “Professional Freedom and Responsibility” Award, whose other recipients include Bill Moyers and Molly Ivins–in addition to other honors.
Graves previously served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy in the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked on judicial nominations, federal and state court relations, and other policies; as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee where she handled judicial nominations; as the Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, where she advised judges and judicial programs on anti-corruption measures; and other posts. She has testified before Congress about the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Postal Service, FOIA reform, and national security matters.
She is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the infrastructure of right-wing groups, both nationally and in the states, and how their billionaire funders and influence are regressing American public policies and institutions.
For additional information about this article, please contact Evan Vorpahl via email@example.com.