Outside Groups Spent $10 Million on Legislative Races
Special interest groups backing Democrats spent more of it, about $5.5 million.
More than two dozen special interest groups doled out nearly $9.9 million on outside electioneering activities in this fall’s legislative elections, a preliminary review by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found.
Groups that backed Democratic candidates spent $5.5 million and groups that backed Republicans spent nearly $4.4 million. In the end, Democrats lost two seats in the state Senate and gained two seats in the Assembly. Republicans will hold majorities of 21-12 in the Senate and 61-38 in the Assembly when the legislature convenes next year.
These electioneering groups fall into two categories – express advocacy groups and phony issue ad groups. Express advocacy groups, which make independent expenditures, must report their spending to the state. That’s because their broadcast and online advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities use the magic words “vote for” or “vote against” or their equivalents.
Phony issue ad groups, which can also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, do not have to report their spending because of federal court decisions and lax campaign finance laws. These groups smear or praise candidates but without explicitly telling viewers who to vote for or against.
The top-spending groups in the 2020 legislative contests were:
A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund, which supported Democratic candidates, $2,029,576;
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, which sponsored independent expenditures and undisclosed phony issue ads to support Republicans using two electioneering arms – here and here – an estimated $975,000;
Americans for Prosperity, a rightwing Koch-backed group that supported GOP candidates, $748,146;
Jobs First Coalition, which supported Republican candidates, $674,002.
Outside special interests spent nearly $1 million or more in three races. The legislative races where outside groups spent the most were:
The 32nd Senate District, an open seat in the La Crosse area, more than $1.2 million. Eight groups that supported Democrat Brad Pfaff, who won, spent about $670,500 and four groups that supported Republican Dan Kapanke spent about $547,900;
The 8th Senate District in suburban Milwaukee, more than $1 million. Two groups that supported incumbent GOP Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, who won reelection, spent about $522,100 and seven groups that supported Democratic challenger Neal Plotkin spent about $517,800;
The 30th Senate District, an open seat in Green Bay, $998,456. Four groups that supported Republican Eric Wimberger, who won, spent $449,123 and 11 groups that backed Democrat Jonathon Hansen doled out $549,333;
The 10th Senate District in far northwestern Wisconsin, $693,919. Six groups that supported Republican candidate Rob Stafsholt, who won, spent $589,408 and seven groups that supported incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Schachtner, of Somerset, doled out $104,511.
The 30th Assembly District in far northwestern Wisconsin, $643,083. Three groups that backed incumbent GOP Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, of River Falls, who won, doled out $441,599 and eight groups that supported Democrat Sarah Yacoub spent $201,484.
For more information about the electioneering activities and spending by all of the outside groups involved in the fall legislative races, go to the Hijacking Campaign 2020 feature on the Democracy Campaign website.
A final report on the total cost of this year’s legislative elections will be issued early next after the groups and candidates file year-end fundraising and spending reports.