Record $28 Million Spent in 2016 Legislative Races

March 2, 2017

Stacks of Hundred Dollar Bills

Spending by candidates and special interest groups hit a record $28.1 million in the 2016 fall legislative races, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

The amount spent by candidates and groups in the 2016 fall legislative elections in Wisconsin was 66 percent higher than the $16.9 million spent in the last regular legislative races in 2014, and 39 percent more than the previous record $20.2 million spent by legislative candidates and groups in the 2008 legislative races (see Bar Chart below).

The record spending in the 2016 legislative races was likely due to sweeping changes to state campaign finance laws in 2015 that doubled candidate contribution limits, and allowed corporate contributions to parties and legislative fundraising committees, among other things.

Chart: Total Spending by Legislative Committees and Outside Special Interests in Legislative Races

The 30 outside groups involved in last year’s legislative races were backed by wealthy manufacturing, business, labor, school voucher, and conservative and liberal ideological interests, among others. Their nearly $9 million in spending in the 2016 regular legislative races almost double the $4.8 million spent in the last 2014 legislative races. Group spending in the 2016 legislative races was about 27 percent higher than the previous record $7.1 million spent by special interests groups in the 2008 legislative races.

The $19.1 million spent by legislative candidates and legislative fundraising committees in the 2016 legislative races was 57 percent higher than the $12.1 million spent by candidates in the last 2014 legislative races, and 45 percent higher than the previous record $13.1 million spent by candidates in the 2008 legislative elections. Last fall’s legislative elections saw about three dozen candidates spend more than $100,000 each from their campaign fund. Four of those candidates doled out more than a half-million dollars each in 2016, including:

  • 14th Senate District Democrat Brian Smith, about $580,400;
  • 18th Senate District Republican Dan Feyen, about $545,450;
  • 18th Senate District Democrat Mark Harris, about $510,715;
  • 51st Assembly District Republican Todd Novak, about $510,460.

Groups that back Democrats spent an estimated $4.8 million while groups that back Republicans spent nearly $4.2 million in the 2016 legislative races.

Four outside groups – two Republican and two Democratic – spent more than $1 million on last year’s legislative races. Those groups and the amount they spent were:

Six legislative races saw more than $1 million in combined spending by groups and candidates, including:

  • The 18th Senate District, which cost nearly $5.1 million. The candidates spent about $1.1 million, led by Republican Dan Feyen, whose campaign committee spent about $545,450 and beat Democrat Mark Harris. Outside groups doled out nearly $4 million, led by WMC, which spent an estimated $1.4 million to support Feyen, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent nearly $1.3 million to support Harris;
  • The 14th Senate District, which cost about $3 million. The candidates spent about $961,500, led by Democrat Brian Smith, whose campaign committee spent about $580,400 and lost to incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Olsen. Outside special interest groups spent just over $2 million, led by WMC, which spent about $426,000 to back Olsen, and the Wisconsin Freedom Alliance, which spent an estimated $525,000 on television ads against Olsen;
  • The 51st Assembly District, which cost more than $1.4 million. The candidates spent about $846,000, led by incumbent Republican Todd Novak, whose campaign committee spent about $510,460 and beat Democrat Jeff Wright. Outside special interest groups spent about $601,000, led by the American Federation for Children, which spent about $260,000 to support Novak, and the Jobs First Coalition Political Fund, which spent about $129,000 to also back Novak;
  • The 12th Senate District, which cost nearly $1.1 million. The candidates spent about $548,550, led by incumbent Republican Tom Tiffany, whose campaign committee spent $294,490 to defeat Democrat Bryan Van Stippen. Outside special interest groups spent about $535,000, led by the American Federation for Children, which spent about $350,000 to support Tiffany, and Wisconsin First Political Fund, which spent about $153,000 to support Van Stippen;
  • The 32nd Senate District, which cost more than $1 million. The candidates spent about $790,260, led by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, whose campaign committee spent about $432,665 to defeat GOP challenger Dan Kapanke. Outside special interest groups spent a little more than $250,000, led by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which doled out an estimated $215,000 against Shilling;
  • The 85th Assembly District, which cost more than $1 million. The candidates, who were vying for an open seat, spent about $514,800, led by Republican Pat Snyder, whose campaign committee spent $268,625 to defeat Democrat Mandy Wright. Outside special interest groups spent about $513,000, led by the American Federation for Children, which spent about $251,000 to back Snyder, and the Jobs First Coalition Political Fund, which spent about $121,000, also to support Snyder.