State Donors Gave $4.4 Million to Outside Smear Groups
Two-thirds of money donated in 2020 went to Democratic-leaning groups.
Wisconsin contributors gave more than $4.4 million in 2020 to outside electioneering groups that often smear candidates in state and federal elections. About $2 of every $3 went to Democratic-leaning groups.
The contributions came from about 800 Wisconsin contributors and went to nearly five dozen so-called 527 groups, which are named after the IRS rules that govern them. 527 groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts from any sources. The groups are run by powerful special interests, like manufacturing, business, health care, and conservative and liberal ideological outfits.
Of the $4.46 million from Wisconsin contributors last year, about $2.78 million, or 62 percent, went to Democratic 527 groups and about $1.59 million, or 36 percent, went to Republican groups. About $87,700, or 2 percent, went to groups that were bipartisan or did not support either party.
Ten Wisconsin contributors gave $100,000 or more to 527 groups in 2020, and a dozen 527 outfits received more than $100,000 from Badger State contributors. Wealthy Wisconsin contributors, including individuals, businesses, unions, and trade organizations, among others, often find 527 groups attractive because state and federal campaign finance laws frequently restrict or prohibit them from making the same exorbitant contributions directly to candidates.
The Wisconsin contributors who gave $250,000 or more to 527 groups in 2020 were:
Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, $575,650. Abele is a businessman and philanthropist who traditionally supports Democratic candidates, causes, and groups. Abele contributed to the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Emerge Wisconsin.
Forest County Potawatomi Community, of Crandon, $425,000. The tribe, which operates a Milwaukee casino, contributed to the Republican State Leadership Committee, Forest County Potawatomi Action Fund, and the Democratic Governors Association.
United Association Local 601, of Milwaukee, about $279,735. Local 601’s contributions were made to one of two 527 groups operated by the United Association, an international plumbing and pipe trades union.
Sage Weil, of Madison, $257,000. Weil, a software engineer who founded Ceph, WebRing, DreamHost, and InkTank, contributed to the Sister District Project and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Diane Hendricks, of Beloit, $250,000. Hendricks is the owner of ABC Supply and one of the wealthiest women in the country. Hendricks backs Republican and conservative candidates for state and federal offices in Wisconsin and across the country. Hendricks contributed to the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Alliant Energy, of Madison, $250,000. The electric and natural gas utility’s contributions went to the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The 527 groups which received the most from Wisconsin contributors in 2020 were:
Democratic Governors Association, about $652,340. This is a Washington, D.C.-based group that raises tens of millions of dollars every year from special interests to elect Democratic governors throughout the country. The group has spent about $13.5 million in Wisconsin gubernatorial elections, making it one of the largest outside spenders since 2010 in legislative and statewide races.
LGBTQ Victory Fund, formerly called the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, $528,110. This Washington, D.C.-based group supports gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual candidates for public office throughout the country.
Republican State Leadership Committee, about $516,025. This Arlington, Va.-based group supports Republican and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices around the country. In Wisconsin, the group has spent more than $6.1 million since 2010 on legislative and statewide races.
United Association, $445,780. This Maryland-based international plumbing and pipe trades union operates two 527 organizations and collects contributions from six locals in Wisconsin. The union backs federal, state, and local candidates who support pro-labor policies.
Republican Governors Association, $397,950. This Washington, D.C.-based group supports GOP candidates for governor across the country. The group has spent $29.5 million in Wisconsin gubernatorial elections, making it one of the largest outside spenders since 2010 in legislative and statewide elections.