Before and After Citizens United:
Wisconsin Election Spending Tripled in Wake of Supreme Court Ruling

Recall elections added to spending spike; without ’em, spending doubled

March 13, 2013

Madison – Candidate and interest group spending in contests for state and federal offices totaled $391.9 million in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles – more than triple the $123.7 million spent in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

The chief reasons for the sharp spending increase in Wisconsin elections are the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC that crippled campaign finance laws and paved the way for unlimited election spending, and the state’s unprecedented recall elections in 2011 and 2012 for governor, lieutenant governor and 13 state Senate seats.

But even without the $137.5 million spent on the 2011 and 2012 recall races, candidate and group election spending in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles totaled about $254.4 million – still more than double what candidates and groups spent in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles (Bar Chart 1).

Bar Chart 1

Bar Chart 1: Candidate and Interest Group Spending in Wisconsin State and Federal Elections

The recall elections aside, the tripling of election spending between the 2006 and 2008 election cycles and the 2010 and 2012 election cycles was chiefly due to runaway spending by outside smear groups unbridled by the Citizens United decision. Outside groups accounted for $39.6 million in spending on state and federal Wisconsin races in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, but increased more than four-fold to about $171.3 million in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles (Bar Chart 2).

Bar Chart 2

Bar Chart 2: Spending by Groups and Candidates Before and After the Citizens United Decision

An election cycle covers a two-year period, so the 2006 and 2008 cycles include elections held from 2005 through 2008 and the 2010 and 2012 cycles include elections held from 2009 through 2012.

In addition to the raw increase in spending, the share of election spending by groups surged. Group election spending in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles accounted for 32 percent of the $123.7 million spent by groups and candidates compared to 44 percent of the $391.9 million spent by candidates and groups in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. Candidate spending between the two periods increased about 2.5 times – from $84.1 million to $220.5 million – but that was due mainly to a quirk in state campaign finance laws that allowed the 2011 and 2012 recall candidates to raise and spend unlimited funds, and an ever-increasing reliance by candidates in all elections on expensive television advertising.

Spending records were set for several state and federal offices (Table) in the 2012 election cycle. Those races were:

  • The 2012 recall for governor where candidates and groups spent about $80.9 million. The candidates spent $44.4 million led by Walker who doled out $36.1 million and won. Outside groups spent $36.5 million led by the Republican Governors Association’s state political action committee which spent $9.4 million to back Walker. The previous spending record in a race for Wisconsin governor was $37.4 million in 2010.
  • The 2012 U.S. Senate race where candidates and groups spent about $77 million. The candidates doled out about $35.1 million led by Democrat Tammy Baldwin who spent $15.2 million and won. Outside groups spent about $41.9 million led by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a PAC that supported Republican candidate Tommy Thompson and other GOP candidates for the Senate nationwide, at $6.7 million. The previous spending record in a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin was $41.9 million in 2010.
  • The 2012 U.S. House race in the 7th Congressional District where candidates and groups spent $9 million. The candidates doled out nearly $4.1 million led by Republican Sean Duffy who spent $2.6 million and won. Outside groups spent $4.9 million led by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a PAC that supported Duff’s opponent, Patrick Kreitlow, and other Democratic candidates for the House nationwide, at nearly $1.8 million. Spending in the 7th Congressional race was closely followed by the 1st Congressional District contest between U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, who was also the GOP candidate for vice president, and Democratic candidate Rob Zerban which totaled $8.9 million.
  • The 2011 recall election in the 8th Senate District where candidates and groups spent $10 million – a record for a legislative race. The candidates – incumbent GOP Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills and Democratic challenger Sandra Pasch of Whitefish Bay – spent just over $2 million led by Darling who doled out about $1.23 million – record spending for a legislative candidate. Outside groups spent about $7.9 million led by We Are Wisconsin, a political action committee created and funded mostly by a coalition of large Washington D.C.-based labor unions to back Democrats and attack Republicans in the recall races, which spent $2.6 million on the race.

The groups that spent the most since the 2006 election cycle were mostly involved in non-federal statewide and legislative elections. The top three spending groups had to report some of their fundraising and spending, but the sources of most of their contributions were secret.

Topping the list of groups was:

  • The Greater Wisconsin Committee which has spent an estimated $26.5 million on statewide races for governor, attorney general and Supreme Court, and dozens of legislative races. The group operates a political action committee, corporation and issue ad group that spent most of their money on negative broadcast ads and mailings that attack Republican and conservative candidates. Greater Wisconsin gets much of its money from large labor unions and Democratic-leaning ideological groups, like the Democratic Governors Association, that get millions of dollars from large corporations.
  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state largest business organization, which has spent an estimated $17.9 million on statewide, legislative and some federal races. The group secretly raises and spends all of its money on issue ads that attack Democratic candidates and support Republicans mostly using broadcast ads and mailings. In addition, WMC’s parent organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business organization and a major outside electioneering group in presidential and other federal races, reported spending $2.96 million on Wisconsin’s 2012 U.S. Senate race.
  • The Republican Governors Association which doled out $16.4 million for phony issue ads and independent expenditures through a state PAC in the 2006, 2010 and 2012 races for governor. The Washington D.C.-based group raises millions of dollars from large corporations, powerful trade associations and wealthy individuals to support Republican candidates and attack Democratic candidates for governor throughout the country. It was one of the biggest-spending outside groups in each of the last three races for governor, and spent most of its cash – $14.4 million – to help Walker win the 2010 general and 2012 recall elections.

Table
Candidate and Group Spending (in millions)
During the 2010 and 2012 and the 2006 and 2008 Election Cycles

Election Cycle State And Federal Races* Amount
2010 and 2012
2012 Governor Recall $80.9
2012 U.S. Senate $77.0
2011 Recalls for State Senate (nine races) $44.0
2010 U.S. Senate $41.9
2010 Governor $37.4
2012 U.S. House $28.0
2010 U.S. House $24.3
2010 Legislature $19.3
2012 Legislature $16.5
2012 Recalls for State Senate (four races) and Lt. Governor $12.5
2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court $5.4
2009 Wisconsin Supreme Court and State school superintendent $3.2
2010 Attorney General $1.5
2010 and 2012 Total $391.9
2006 and 2008
2006 Governor $32.3
2008 Legislature $20.2
2006 U.S. House $17.3
2008 U.S. House $13.8
2006 Legislature $13.0
2006 Attorney General $8.3
2006 U.S. Senate $6.3
2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court $6.0
2007 Wisconsin Supreme Court $5.8
2005 State School Superintendent .7
2006 and 2008 Total $123.70

*Spending figures for the federal races were compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Spending figures for the state races were compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign .