April 2, 2018
(This profile updates information and figures in a previous August 2015 feature on WMC.)
This Washington, D.C.-based group, whose mission is to elect Republican candidates for governor nationwide, is one of the top-spending outside electioneering groups in Wisconsin.
The Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent an estimated $18.4 million to help Republican Gov. Scott Walker win his 2010 general, 2012 recall and 2014 reelection campaigns. And it’s likely to up that spending total significantly as Walker is likely to run again this year. The group chose Walker as its 2017 chairman.
The group, which was created in 1963, operates a state political action committee called Right Direction Wisconsin that makes independent expenditures. In addition to disclosed spending on independent expenditures, the organization has also engaged in secret issue ad spending.
The RGA operates like most well-funded special interest groups, spending most of its cash to air broadcast ads that smear Democratic candidates by accusing them of favoring higher taxes, government spending, and other policies that hurt the economy. Here is some of the work they sponsored during Walker’s 2014 reelection bid – here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The RGA uses a 527 organization to raise money from wealthy individuals, corporations, and trade organizations tied to manufacturing, health care, energy, insurance, and other powerful special interests. 527 groups must disclose fundraising and spending in periodic reports to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
But 527s are unregulated in so far as they can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from any source. Under Walker’s leadership, the group raised about $56.4 million and spent about $32.2 million nationwide in 2017, including an $86,000 contribution to Walker’s campaign and a $12,000 contribution to the state Republican Party.
Numerous kinds of outside electioneering groups, including 527s, allow wealthy donors to skirt state and federal campaign finance laws. In many cases, the source and size of the contributions to the RGA and other 527 groups would be illegal if they were direct contributions to state and federal candidates and committees.
Nearly 200 well-heeled Wisconsin individuals, businesses, trade groups, and tribes have contributed about $11 million to the RGA since the beginning of 2002, including $1.7 million in 2017 under Walker’s leadership. Seventeen Wisconsin donors have contributed $100,000 or more since 2002 led by:
Mike and Mary Sue Shannon, of Brookfield, $3 million. Mike Shannon is a managing partner with KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure businesses, and Mary Sue is a homemaker. The contributions include $2.5 million directly from the couple and $500,000 from the Shannon 2006 Revocable Trust, which is controlled by the Shannons and used to make contributions to outside spending groups. In addition to their RGA contributions, the couple has directly contributed $160,000 to Walker’s campaign for governor since January 2010;
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, $1,980,525. The chamber boasts 1,800 Milwaukee-area members and pushes pro-business, pro-school voucher, and anti-worker policies Between January 2010 and June 2017, the group’s PAC, corporation, and a conduit contributed about $287,500 to legislative and statewide candidates, including $35,675 to Walker. All but $3,500 of the group’s total contributions went to Republicans;
American Transmission Co., $778,600. The Waukesha company builds and operates high-voltage electric transmission lines throughout the Upper Midwest. Between January 2010 and June 2017, the company’s corporation and executives contributed nearly $291,000 to Wisconsin legislative and statewide candidates, including $37,325 to Walker.
Johnson Controls, $716,741. This Milwaukee company produces automotive parts and heating and cooling products for commercial buildings. Between January 2010 and June 2017, company employees contributed $74,420 to Wisconsin legislative and statewide candidates, including about $31,900 to Walker.
The Robert and Patricia Kern 1992 Revocable Trust, $550,000. Robert and Patricia Kern, of Waukesha, founded Generac Power Systems. The couple are longtime givers to Republican and conservative candidates and causes in Wisconsin and throughout the country. Between January 2010 and June 2017, the couple gave about $283,000 to Republican legislative and statewide candidates in Wisconsin, including $220,000 to Walker.