After Wisconsin Democrats suffered sweeping defeats up and down the ballot in November, they will offer no challenge to Republican-backed Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler in April.
Some on the left say that's the fault of a weakened state party infrastructure, while others argue progressives have been intimidated by massive spending from groups on the right.
It's "disappointing" no progressive judges or lawyers threw their hats in the ring, said One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross. The liberal advocacy group was behind a stack of opposition research that plagued conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley's race against liberal appeals court judge JoAnne Kloppenburg last spring.
Ross said he understands why people would blame the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, but also noted that most progressive Supreme Court candidates have not identified themselves as Democrats or aligned themselves closely with the state party during their campaigns.
"There are judges out there, attorneys out there. Someone should have stepped up," he said. "I also understand the disincentive to doing that."
That disincentive comes in the form of money spent on conservative candidates' behalf by the state Republican Party and conservative groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Ross said.
Groups like the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, which backed Bradley, outspent groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which backed Kloppenburg, by about four to one in the April 2016 race.
Money from pro-business groups on the right has typically been countered with labor money on the left, but Milwaukee-based Democratic consultant Sachin Chheda said Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 legislation, which eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees, has taken a toll on unions' ability to spend in these races.
"Labor is still core to the Democratic Party, but they have many fewer members and a lot fewer resources than they did five years ago, and that was very intentional on the Republicans' part (through Act 10 and the passage of right-to-work legislation)," Chheda said.
The absence of a liberal Supreme Court candidate in the April 4 election has become a source of debate among critics of DPW and candidates are considering challenging DPW chairwoman Martha Laning for the post this summer.
It's not the job of the party chair to beg a candidate to run, one Democratic strategist said, but it is the party's job to make potential candidates feel they would have a chance at winning.
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"The Democratic Party has failed to create the kind of relationship and the kind of party infrastructure that would give confidence to a progressive jurist to run for the state Supreme Court," said Bryan Kennedy, a likely candidate for DPW chairman. "They can’t look at the Democratic Party and say, 'I have a partner there.'"
Democrats are "late to the game" in getting involved in local, nonpartisan races to build a "farm team," Kennedy, mayor of Glendale and former president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, said.
Kennedy said this was a "lost opportunity" for Democrats and progressives to force a conversation about Ziegler's merits as a justice.
Not only does the party lack infrastructure, Kennedy said, it also needs to do more to partner with the liberal groups that support its efforts.
"These progressive groups are looked at as an ATM to get money for the party, but they don’t actually get anything for their investment," Kennedy said. "If you look at how Republicans operate … they bring in these conservative groups, and they play in these races because they know that their issues are going to be addressed. They have a seat at the table. And we have not invested in the kind of relationships that are permanent and lasting with a lot of these third-party groups."
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Brandon Weathersby said the party will still be active in the spring election.
"We fielded a number of options for the Supreme Court, but those potential candidates decided not to run for office after taking personal stock and speaking with their families," Weathersby said in a statement. "We remain committed to helping to elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot this spring, including re-electing Tony Evers, a Superintendent of Public Instruction who is committed to public education in Wisconsin."
Ziegler was first elected in 2007, defeating attorney Linda Clifford in a race that marked the debut of big spending in state judicial campaigns. The last unopposed Supreme Court race was more than a decade ago, when the late Justice N. Patrick Crooks was re-elected in 2006. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley was also re-elected without opposition in 2005, but had an opponent in 2015.
Ziegler's campaign steering committee, includes former Gov. Tommy Thomspon, former Commerce Secretary Cory Nettles, former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow and former Bradley Foundation head Michael Grebe. She had a little more than $200,000 in her campaign account in her most recent campaign finance report, filed in July.