Record Spending by Outside Groups in 2018

November 29, 2018

About four dozen wealthy special interest groups doled out more than $60 million to mostly smear candidates during the 2018 fall legislative and statewide elections, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign preliminary review found.

The record-smashing amount spent by these outside electioneering groups totaled $61.4 million, including nearly $31.3 million by Republican outfits and $30.1 million by Democratic groups.

Compared to other mid-term election years that featured legislative and statewide races, spending by these groups in the 2018 fall elections was 68 percent higher than the $36.6 million spent in 2014 elections and more than three times the $18.9 million spent just eight years ago in the 2010 fall elections.

These electioneering groups fall into two categories – express advocacy groups and phony issue ad groups. Express advocacy groups, which make independent expenditures, must report their spending to the state. That’s because their broadcast and online advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities use the magic words “vote for” or “vote against” or their equivalents.

Phony issue ad groups, which can also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, do not have to report their spending because of federal court decisions and lax campaign finance laws. These groups smear or praise candidates but without explicitly telling viewers who to vote for or against.

Nine of these outside groups spent more than $1 million in the 2018 general elections (See table below). The top spenders, which plunked down most of their cash for TV ads in the races for governor and attorney general, were:

Democratic Governors Association (DGA) spent an estimated $13,450,000. The DGA, based in Washington, D.C., used a phony issue ad group called A Stronger Wisconsin to pepper the airwaves with nearly a dozen television ads from late August until Election Day that attacked incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who lost to Democrat Tony Evers, on education, transportation, and health care;

Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent $10,939,632. The RGA, based in Washington, D.C., used two entities, Right Direction Wisconsin PAC and ACC Wisconsin PAC , to sponsor numerous television ads from September until Election Day that attacked Evers on teacher misconduct, and tax and spending issues;

Americans for Prosperity spent an estimated $8,320,000. The conservative group created by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch made reported independent expenditures and secret phony issue ads to sponsor TV ads and mailings that backed Walker and smeared Evers. The group also sponsored canvassing, mailings, and other activities to back Republicans in more than a dozen legislative races;

Greater Wisconsin Committee spent an estimated $7,000,000. This Democratic group, which is backed by union and rich ideological contributors, used its issue ad arm and corporation to mostly sponsor television and online advertising to support Evers and Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Kaul, who both won. Democrats backed by the group in at least eight legislative races lost;

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) spent an estimated $5,300,000. The state’s largest business group, which backs Republicans for legislative and statewide office, used its phony issue ad arm and independent expenditure committee to mostly sponsor television ads to back Walker and incumbent GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel, who both lost. Republicans backed by the group in at least four legislative races won;

Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) spent $2,833,949. This Washington, D.C.-based group used a corporation called Wisconsin Freedom PAC to sponsor television and online advertising, robocalls and other activities to unsuccessfully back Schimel’s reelection bid;

Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) spent $2,180,854. This Washington, D.C.-based group also used a corporation called the WI People’s Lawyer Project to mostly sponsor television ads to support Kaul, who won;

Wisconsin League of Conversation Voters spent $1,062,410. The state group used an independent expenditure committee to sponsor television and online advertising to support Evers and Democratic candidates in two state Senate races.

Republican State Leadership Committee spent an estimated $1,030,000. This Virginia-based group supports Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature around the country. In Wisconsin, the group sponsored television, radio and online ads, and mailings in six legislative races and produced a video featuring Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Table
Spending by Electioneering Groups in the 2018 Fall Elections

GroupAmount
Democratic Governors Association* $13,450,000
Republican Governors Association $10,939,632
Americans for Prosperity** $8,320,000
Greater Wisconsin Committee** $7,000,000
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce** $5,300,000
Republican Attorneys General Association $2,833,949
Democratic Attorneys General Association $2,180,854
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters $1,062,410
Republican State Leadership Committee* $1,030,000
American Federation for Children $971,133
NRA Political Victory Fund PAC $955,155
For Our Future $910,736
Service Employees International Union $718,672
High Ground Political Fund $715,481
Forward Majority Action $609,675
Planned Parenthood $578,455
Wisconsin Leadership Committee $503,654
AFSCME $440,927
NextGen Climate Action Committee $433,536
Jobs First Coalition Political Fund $337,839
Strong Wisconsin $331,024
Progressive Takeover IE Committee $282,452
Leadership MKE $246,814
Wisconsin Realtors Association $208,850
Wisconsin Alliance for Reform* $155,000
End Citizens United Non-federal $125,000
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation $123,554
Center for Popular Democracy Action $103,001
Fair Wisconsin $102,372
Voces de la Frontera $96,517
MoveOn.org Political Action $76,480
American Majority Action $63,352
Wisconsin Right to Life* $35,531
American Federation of Teachers $27,821
Wisconsin First Political Fund $27,245
AFL-CIO $26,845
Leaders for a Better Community $26,021
Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin $15,699
Wisconsin Firearms Owners* $15,000
Young Americans for Liberty $6,526
Citizens for Responsible Government $5,134
Sierra Club Political Committee $5,099
Leaders Igniting Transformation Action Fund $762
Citizen Action of Wisconsin $634
Wisconsin Family Action $205
WEAC Region 7 PAC $35
TOTAL $61,399,081

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