Record $35.8M Spent on Fall Legislative Races in 2018

March 6, 2019

Spending by candidates and special interest smear groups in the 2018 fall legislative races hit a record $35.8 million, according to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis.

The amount spent by candidates and groups in last fall’s legislative elections was 27 percent higher than the previous record $28.1 million spent in the 2016 fall legislative races and double the $16.9 million spent on fall legislative races in 2014 (see bar chart below).

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

The 26 outside groups involved in last year’s legislative races spent $12.2 million on disclosed express advocacy and undisclosed phony issue ads. Democratic groups spent more than $6.7 million and Republican groups spent nearly $5.5 million.

The record $12.2 million spent by these groups in the 2018 fall legislative races was 36 percent higher than the previous record of nearly $9 million spent on the 2016 fall legislative races. It was also 159 percent higher than the $4.7 million spent in the 2014 regular legislative races. These outside electioneering groups represented wealthy manufacturing, business, labor, school voucher, and conservative and liberal ideological interests, among others (see Table below).

Legislative candidates and legislative campaign committees spent a record of nearly $23.6 million, including more than $14 million by GOP candidates, $9.5 million by Democratic candidates, and about $32,100 by independent and third party candidates.

The nearly $23.6 million in legislative candidate and legislative campaign committee spending in the 2018 fall elections was 23 percent higher than the previous record $19.1 million that candidates and committees spent in the 2016 legislative races. It was also nearly double the $12.1 million spent by candidates in the 2014 legislative races.

The successive record spending by candidates and outside electioneering groups in the 2016 and 2018 regular legislative races was triggered in 2015 by a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that decimated the state’s campaign finance laws and then by sweeping changes to the laws by the GOP-controlled legislature and former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in the John Doe II case said that candidates can coordinate with outside “issue advocacy” groups.

The changes by the legislature and Walker doubled candidate contribution limits, allowed corporate contributions to parties and legislative fundraising committees for the first time in more than 100 years, loosened reporting requirements for independent expenditure committees, and also allowed undisclosed issue ad groups to coordinate with candidates.

Six legislative races tallied more than $1 million in spending each by the candidates and groups combined last fall. None of these broke previous records for candidate and group spending in a legislative race. They were:

The 17th Senate District, which cost more than $4.5 million. The candidates spent more than $1.4 million, led by incumbent GOP Sen. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green, who spent $887,450 and won. Outside groups doled out nearly $3.1 million express advocacy and secret issue ad spending. Topping the list was the Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC), which spent nearly $1.2 million to support Democrat Kriss Marion, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), which spent an estimated $750,000 to support Marklein.

The 1st Senate District, which cost nearly $4.2 million. The candidates spent about $832,340, led by incumbent Democratic Sen. Caleb Frostman, of Sturgeon Bay, who spent about $430,840. Outside groups spent more than $3.3 million. Topping the list were WMC and GWC, which spent more than $1 million each. WMC backed GOP Rep. Andre Jacque, of De Pere, who won, and GWC supported Frostman.

The 19th Senate District, which cost more than $2.3 million. The candidates spent about $945,350, led by incumbent Republican Senate President Roger Roth, of Appleton, who spent about $499,000 and won. Outside groups spent nearly $1.4 million. The leading spenders were GWC, which spent an estimated $800,000 to support Democrat Lee Snodgrass, and the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which spent $208,850 to support Roth.

The 5th Senate District, which cost more than $2.2 million. The candidates spent $920,430, led by incumbent GOP Sen. Dale Kooyenga, of Brookfield, who spent about $622,440 and won. Outside groups spent more than $1.3 million. The leading spenders were GWC, which doled out an estimated $750,000, and High Ground Political Fund, which spent about $166,550. Both groups backed Democrat Julie Henszey.

The 23rd Senate District, which cost nearly $1.1 million. The candidates spent about $610,120 on this open seat, led by Republican Rep. Kathy Bernier, of Chippewa Falls, who spent more than $435,000 and won. Outside groups spent about $455,800. Topping the list was WMC, which spent nearly $246,000, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent an estimated $70,000. Both groups supported Bernier.

The 25th Senate District, which cost more than $1 million. The candidates doled out about $642,700, led by Republican James Bolen, of Cable, who spent about $336,575. Outside groups spent $391,500, led by the Republican State Leadership Committee at an estimated $350,000 to support Bolen, and GWC, which spent $41,500 to oppose Bolen. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Janet Bewley, of Mason, won the race.

The Democracy Campaign calculated the cost of the legislative races using state campaign finance reports filed by the candidates and some electioneering groups; fundraising and spending reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service; and television ad buys made by outside groups that did not have to disclose their spending.

For more details about the spending and electioneering activities of all the electioneering groups, go to the Democracy Campaign’s “Hijacking Campaign 2018” feature.

Table
Spending by Electioneering Groups
in the 2018 Fall Legislative Elections

GroupAmount
Greater Wisconsin Committee** $3,799,212
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce** $2,089,561
Republican State Leadership Committee* $980,000
American Federation for Children $971,133
High Ground Political Fund $715,481
Jobs First Coalition Political Fund $683,517
Forward Majority Action $609,675
Wisconsin Conservation Voters $410,577
Wisconsin Leadership Committee $361,907
Progressive Takeover IE Committee $282,452
Americans for Prosperity** $281,602
Leadership MKE $246,814
Wisconsin Realtors Association $208,850
Wisconsin Alliance for Reform* $155,000
Planned Parenthood $154,000
For Our Future $115,346
American Majority Action $63,352
Leaders for a Better Community $26,021
Wisconsin First Political Fund $25,000
Wisconsin Firearm Owners* $15,000
Wisconsin Right to Life $10,531
Young Americans for Liberty $6,526
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation $4,963
Voces de la Frontera $217
American Federation of Teachers $201
WEAC Region 7 PAC $13
TOTAL $12,216,951


No asterisk represents disclosed spending by independent expenditure groups.
*Estimated spending for undisclosed issue ad activity.
**Estimated spending for undisclosed issue ads and disclosed independent expenditures.