Cost of 2012 Legislative Races Tops $16 Million

Special interest groups spent millions to flip control of Senate

February 19, 2013

Madison – About 300 legislative candidates and fundraising committees and about two dozen special interest groups that spend most of their money on negative broadcast ads to smear candidates doled out $16.53 million on the 2012 fall legislative races, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review shows.

Total spending by legislative candidates, four legislative fundraising committees and outside groups was 14 percent less than the $19.25 million spent in the 2010 legislative races, 18 percent less than the overall record $20.25 million spent in the November 2008 legislative elections and 27 percent more than the $13.03 million spent in the fall 2006 legislative races (see Bar Chart 1).

Bar Chart 1

Bar Chart 1: Legislative Committee and Outside Special Interest Spending in Legislative Races

The Democracy Campaign analysis also found:

  • Legislative candidates alone raised $9.26 million and spent $9.5 million with officeholders raising almost twice as much as challengers and spending more than twice as much as challengers. The incumbent fundraising and spending advantage continues a trend that shows how much the legislature resembles a gated community protected by large amounts of special interest cash.
Campaign reports filed by the candidates showed the 94 officeholders involved in the fall legislative races raised $4.59 million and spent $5.12 million, compared to 85 challengers who raised $2.34 million and spent $2.23 million. The 120 candidates for open seats where there was no incumbent in the race raised $2.33 million and spent $2.14 million.
  • The candidates who won last November raised and spent substantially more than the losers. Winning candidates – 115 of them – raised $5.88 million compared to $3.39 million raised by 184 losing candidates – a 74 percent money advantage. Winning candidates spent $6.16 million compared to $3.33 million spent by the losers – an 85 percent money advantage.
  • Candidates who spent the most won the vast majority of races. The biggest spender won 102 of last fall’s 115 legislative races, or 89 percent of the contests.
  • Republican legislative candidates and support groups spent $9.88 million – 33 percent more than their Democratic counterparts who spent $6.64 million. Independent candidates spent $10,170.

Spending by candidates and special interest smear groups was lower than in previous fall legislative elections when there is no statewide race for governor because legislative fundraising had to compete with six high-profile recall elections in June 2012 for governor, lieutenant governor and four Senate seats where those candidates and groups tapped donors to fuel an estimated $93.4 million in spending.

Twenty-seven outside groups (Table 1) representing business, manufacturing, environmental, labor, agriculture, real estate and conservative and liberal ideological interests spent an estimated $5.15 million on independent expenditures and phony issue ads in the fall 2012 legislative races, including $3.4 million to support Republican legislative candidates and $1.75 million to support Democrats.

Total outside group spending was 23 percent less than the $6.68 million they spent in the 2010 legislative elections, 27 percent less than the $7.1 million in the 2008 legislative races and 80 percent more than the $2.86 million spent in the 2006 legislative races (see Bar Chart 2).

Bar Chart 2

Bar Chart 2: Spending by Outside Electioneering Groups in Legislative Races

Outside group spending was led by the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth which spent $1.3 million in the Green Bay television market where it sponsored a 30-second attack ad against incumbent Democratic Senator Dave Hansen who won reelection to his 30th Senate District seat over GOP challenger John Macco.

The secretive group, which refuses to reveal how much it raises and spends, is run from a Sun Prairie address by longtime Republican political consultant R.J. Johnson. Wisconsin Club for Growth is the state arm of the national Club for Growth and has spent an estimated $11.4 million since 2007 mostly to support GOP legislative and statewide candidates in Wisconsin elections.

Behind Wisconsin Club for Growth was the Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund which reported $1.24 million in independent expenditures on behalf of Democratic candidates. This group spent most of its cash – about $1 million – in the 30th Senate race to support Hansen and in the 18th Senate District race to support incumbent Democratic Senator Jessica King of Oshkosh who lost to Republican challenger Rick Gudex. Greater Wisconsin doled out nearly $900,000 for TV advertising on those races.

In addition to its corporation, Greater Wisconsin operates three other entities which collectively spent an estimated $26.5 million on electioneering activities since 2006 mostly to support Democratic candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, spent about $1 million in two Senate races. The group doled out nearly $895,000 on television ads to smear King in the Senate 18th District race and about $61,000 on a television ad to attack Democratic candidate Susan Sommer in central Wisconsin’s 12th Senate District race. Sommer lost to Republican Tom Tiffany for the Wausau-area seat formerly held by Democrat Jim Holperin.

WMC, which also refuses to disclose how much its raises and spends for outside electioneering activities, is a perennial big spender on state elections and powerful lobbying influence on public policy considered by the legislature and the governor. The group has spent an estimated $17.8 million since 2006 on phony issue ads mostly to support Republican legislative and statewide candidates.

American Federation for Children, a Washington D.C.-based group that supports expanding the state school voucher program which uses millions of public tax dollars to educate children in private and religious schools, says it spent $794,000 on independent expenditures and phony issue ads. The group says it spent more than $325,000 to support Gudex in the Senate 18th District race and reported spending about $135,000 in an unsuccessful effort to support five Milwaukee-area Democratic candidates for Assembly and Senate seats.

Overall issue ad groups spent an estimated $2.8 million and independent expenditure groups spent $2.35 million in the fall legislative races.

For more information about these outside smear groups and their activities in last fall’s legislative races check out our Hijacking Campaign 2012 feature.

Four legislative campaign committees used by Democratic and Republican Senate and Assembly leaders to milk special interests for cash to spend at election time spent a record $1.89 million in 2012 mostly on the fall legislative races and the four Senate recall elections last summer. Spending by the four committees has steadily increased every election year since 2002 (Bar Chart 3). The committees’ spending in 2012 beats the previous record – $1.68 million – in 2011 set because of their elevated fundraising and spending for nine Senate recall races that summer. The previous general election year spending record was $1.65 million in 2010.

Bar Chart 3

Bar Chart 3: Legislative Campaign Committee Spending

Candidate and outside spending topped $2 million in two targeted legislative races whose results gave Republicans control of the Senate, and 21 legislative candidates spent more than $100,000 in their races which is in the range of the number of $100,000-plus spenders in previous, regular legislative elections.

The most expensive fall legislative race was the 18th Senate contest where the candidates and outside groups spent an estimated $2.7 million. Outside smear groups spent an estimated $2.1 million led by WMC, Greater Wisconsin and the American Federation for Children. The groups spent nearly four times as much as Gudex and King who doled out a combined $591,132.

The Senate 30th District race cost an estimated $2.2 million. Spending by outside special interest groups in the Green Bay-area race approached an estimated $1.8 million led by the Club for Growth, Greater Wisconsin and the We Are Wisconsin Political Fund, a corporation funded by mostly out-of-state labor unions. The groups spent nearly four times more than the candidates who doled out 474,155.

The top five spenders (Table 2) in the 2012 fall races were candidates in the targeted 12th, 18th and 30th Senate contests. Gudex led all other legislative candidates with $315,032 in spending followed by his opponent, King who spent $276,100. Tiffany, the 12th Senate District winner, spent $247,616. Rounding out the top five spenders were Macco who spent $229,532 and Hansen who spent $225,234 in the 30th Senate District.

For more information about fundraising and spending by all of the fall 2012 legislative candidates, please check out the links at the end of this press release.

Table 1
Spending By Outside Electioneering Groups In The Fall 2012 Legislative Elections*

Group Amount
Club for Growth Wisconsin** $1,300,000
Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund $1,237,329
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce** $1,000,000
American Federation for Children*** $794,000
We Are Wisconsin Political Fund $335,118
Wisconsin Realtors Political Fund $110,718
WI League of Conservation Voters Independent Expenditure Committee $60,885
Volunteers for Agriculture $55,108
Wisconsin Right to Life $49,920
Citizens for a Strong America** $35,000
Wisconsin Family Action $34,901
America Votes Action Fund $32,324
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin $30,805
AFSCME – Wisconsin Special Account $26,988
Workers’ Voice $14,737
Jobs First Coalition** $10,000
Working America $8,013
Corn PAC $2,764
Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin $2,490
Wisconsin Recall Action Fund $2,348
Wisconsin Education Association Council $1,374
Independents for Better Government $1,364
Koch Industries $1,060
Racine Tea Party PAC $750
Midwest Victory Team $677
Voces de la Frontera Action Committee $508
Wisconsin Liberty PAC $472
TOTAL $5,149,653

*Figures represent spending in the fall general election. This does not include spending in the 2012 recall races.
**Estimated phony issue ad spending.
***Estimated spending on phony issue ads and reported independent expenditures.

Table 2
Top* Candidate Spending In The Fall 2012 Legislative Races

Candidate Party Office Amount
Rick Gudex R S18 $315,032
Jessica King D S18 $276,100
Tom Tiffany R S12 $247,616
John Macco R S30 $229,532
Dave Hansen D S30 $225,234
Julie Lassa D S24 $203,361
Bill Feehan R S32 $175,303
Nancy VanderMeer R A70 $159,014
Jennifer Shilling D S32 $157,929
Scott Krug R A72 $153,548
Patrick Snyder R A85 $147,359
Howard Marklein R A51 $144,318
Alberta Darling R S08 $141,247
Scott Suder R A69 $136,901
Mary Czaja R A35 $136,389
Warren Petryk R A93 $128,485
Chris Kapenga R A99 $125,741
Roger Rivard R A75 $124,006
Tom Larson R A67 $121,323
Paul Farrow R A98 $115,540
Sheila Harsdorf R S10 $108,951
Kathy Bernier R A68 $95,137
Robin Vos R A63 $94,084
Glenn Grothman R S20 $91,462
Jeff Smith D A93 $89,893
Amy Sue Vruwink D A70 $89,607
Joe Knilans R A44 $83,831
Evan Wynn R A43 $78,998

*Table shows fall legislative candidates who spent $75,000 or more in 2012.

All Legislative Candidate Spending
SpendingDistrictAlphabetical