Club for Growth Wisconsin
December 1, 2015
This rightwing electioneering group first surfaced in Wisconsin elections in 2007 and to date ranks as one of the top outside special interest spenders in legislative and statewide races. Club for Growth Wisconsin’s mostly secret funding, which likely comes from powerful business and ideological interests, has fueled its estimated $11.4 million in electioneering spending since January 2010.
Like its parent, the national Club for Growth, the state group supports conservative and Republican causes and candidates for public office. Club for Growth Wisconsin spends most of its money on broadcast ads in the form of phony issue ads to attack Democrats and support conservative and Republican candidates on government spending, health care, education and taxes.
The group was among numerous organizations targeted in a John Doe investigation into the alleged campaign finance law violations between outside electioneering groups and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during Wisconsin’s 2011 and 2012 recall elections. But a decision issued in July by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority ordered an end to the John Doe probe and granted political candidates and wealthy special interests that operate phony issue ad organizations wide latitude to coordinate campaign activities during elections.
The group’s leaders include two longtime Republican political operatives, Eric O’Keefe and R.J. Johnson. O’Keefe, who is on the Club’s board of directors, has ties to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries. O’Keefe has also led other organizations, including the Sam Adams Alliance and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which funds so-called news organizations with a conservative bent in Wisconsin and dozens of other states. Johnson, who is a director and spokesman for the group, has been the manager of Walker’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns for governor.
Documents from the John Doe probe show Walker asked wealthy donors from Wisconsin and around the country to contribute to the Club, which in turn spent an estimated $9 million to support targeted GOP senators in the 2011 recall elections and $100,000 to support Walker in the 2012 recall elections. The top contributions to the Club include $1.5 million from John Menard Jr., founder and owner of the Menards hardware store chain; $1 million from SAC Capitol Advisors executive Stephen Cohen; $700,000 from Gogebic Taconite, which helped write a bill to regulate state mining laws for a large, open-pit iron ore mine it wanted to operate in northern Wisconsin; $250,000 from hedge fund manager Paul Singer; and $100,000 from manufacturer Maclean-Fogg.
The 2011 recalls targeted nine Republican and Democratic senators for their support for or opposition to Walker’s successful plan to severely restrict public employee collective bargaining rights. The Club’s $9 million in spending in the 2011 recalls mostly paid for TV ads that you can see here, here, and here.
The group’s spending in other election years between 2007 and 2013 ranged between $40,000 and $1.3 million to support three conservative Supreme Court candidates, Walker and numerous GOP legislative candidates. For details about their activities, check out the Club’s election profiles on the Democracy Campaign website here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
In addition to their own outside spending, the Club also has doled out more than $5 million in recent elections to politically allied groups to spend on electioneering activities. Those disbursements to allied groups include $2.9 million to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization; $2 million to Citizens for a Strong America; and $250,000 to the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-school voucher outfit.
In recent months following the state Supreme Court’s decision, Wisconsin Club for Growth has supported the GOP-controlled legislature’s successful effort to decimate the state’s campaign finance laws and abolish the Government Accountability Board (GAB), the state’s nationally acclaimed elections, lobby and ethics watchdog.
The Club claimed the GAB and prosecutors used the John Doe investigations to harass conservatives and suppress their free speech rights. The group sponsored robocalls in late October telling constituents to contact four GOP senators and urge them to vote for the GAB bill.