Election Turns on a Dime

Legislative candidates who spent the most money during the pre-election cycle won 82 percent of the races, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows. Election Turns on a Dime

Money Rules as Four of Five Races Won by Candidates Who Spent the Most

November 13, 2002

Madison -

Leading spenders won 95 of 116 races (Table 1) in the Legislature while 19 races - or 16 percent - were taken by the candidate who did not spend the most money (Table 2). In two races, candidates spent nothing to retain their seats.

In the Senate, 15 of 17 races, or 88 percent, were captured by candidates who spent the most. In the Assembly 80 of 99 races, or 81 percent, were won by those who spent the most and 17 races, or 16 percent, were won by those who did not spend the most. Republican Alvin Ott and Democrat Wayne Wood spent nothing to win their seats.

"We have a checkbook democracy," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "Sad to say, but money has become the single most important factor in determining the outcome of elections."

The WDC analysis is based on campaign finance reports filed by the candidates with the State Elections Board that detail campaign fundraising and spending from August 27 through October 21.

In some races, those who shelled out the most money and won significantly outspent their opponents, including:

  • Republican Representative Stephen Nass who outspent his Libertarian challenger 103-1 to keep his 31st District Assembly seat;
  • Democratic Representative Barbara Gronemus who outspent her Republican rival 38-1 to retain her 91st District seat;
  • Democratic Representative Julie Lassa who outspent her Republican opponent 31-1 to win reelection in the 71st;
  • Democratic Representative Jeff Plale and Republican challenger Daniel LeMahieu who outspent their opponents 30-1 to win the 21st and 59th District Assembly seats, respectively.

"Money trumps ideas. Money trumps real-world experience. Money trumps knowledge of government or public policy issues or state finances. Money even trumps incumbency," McCabe said, noting that legislative incumbents almost always have more money than challengers but when a current office holder is defeated it’s almost always by a higher-spending opponent.

Indeed, the biggest spenders were Republican challenger Joseph Leibham who spent $125,764 in the 9th Senate District and defeated incumbent James Baumgart; Republican challenger Cathy Stepp who spent $120,426 in the 21st Senate District and unseated incumbent Kimberly Plache; and Republican challenger Ronald Brown who spent $108,262 in the 31st District Senate race to upset incumbent Rodney Moen.

The winning candidate who spent the least in a contested race was long-time Democratic Representative Marlin Schneider who spent $351 to retain his 72nd Assembly District seat.

The WDC analysis included candidates in uncontested races on the November ballot because candidate spending does not tell the whole story in some instances. Some of those who spent very little in the general election used their large campaign war chests earlier to defeat primary opponents or simply scare off primary and general election opponents.

Democratic Representative Sheldon Wasserman and Republican Representative Robin Kreibich were unopposed and spent very little in the pre-election cycle, but they sat on campaign accounts of $123,096 and $75,432, respectively.

Democratic Representative Spencer Black also was unopposed and spent only $1,615, but he has had one of the largest campaign accounts in the legislature for years - now at $140,017. Former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen holds the legislature’s largest campaign war chest at $328,682 and spent only $10,520 to defeat a Libertarian and an Independent who together spent less than a fifth of what Jensen did.

In all, 11 Democrats and eight Republicans spent less than their opponents to win their seats. Sixty-one Republicans and 34 Democrats outspent their opponents to win their races.

In open seats, money was definitely a factor with 16 of 19 races won by the candidate who spent the most money.