What Happened in the 1998 Elections and Why

As we move toward the 21st century, Wisconsin has become the poster child for everything that is wrong with the way we finance campaigns. What Happened in the 1998 Elections and Why

November 4, 1998

Madison - This election should be a wake-up call for the citizens of Wisconsin.

We believed that Wisconsin was immune from the worst excesses and abuses of big money and power politics as it is practiced in other states and in Washington.

We believed that our traditions of open, accountable, straight-talking politics based on the reforms instituted at the turn of the 20th century by Robert LaFollette would protect us from domination by the moneyed special interests.

We believed that a politically-active citizenry would insure that campaigns would be a dialogue between the candidates and voters about important issues that affect our everyday lives.

This election, both what we have seen in our US Senate election as well as in our State Senate elections, has shown us otherwise. As we move toward the 21st century, Wisconsin has become the poster child for everything that is wrong with the way we finance campaigns.

This was the year the special interests took over our election system.

  • For the first time ever we saw special interest groups outspend candidates. Enormous amounts of money outside the control of the candidates dominated the hotly-contested open state senate races. These races were high-jacked by the special interest groups. The candidates lost the ability to communicate a consistent message to the voters and to discuss the full range of issues that will come before them in the legislature.
  • Soft money oozed through the system in hundreds of thousands of dollars of unregulated corporate money for phoney "issue ads." It also invaded through super-PACs organized by both the Democrats and Republicans and funded by national political party money.
  • Groups do not put this level of money into campaigns without expecting something in return. The other shoe drops when the legislature comes back into session in January.
The system is broken. We know it, and the voters know it.

A poll of Wisconsin residents conducted during the election season shows that the people want campaign finance reform.

  • 88% of Wisconsin citizens favor tough spending limits for candidates
  • 79% of the public want to see a reduction in special interest influence in elections
  • 73% favor sweeping and fundamental reform.
And is not just a Wisconsin issue. Campaign finance reform was on the ballot in two states yesterday: Massachusetts and Arizona. Both of these referenda included a public financing component. In Massachusetts, it passed with 69% of the vote. In Arizona, it passed with 51% of the vote.

Campaign finance reform is an issue people care about. The want and expect our political leaders to clean up this mess.

We call on the governor and the newly-elected state legislature to put candidates back in charge of campaigns. This frenzy of special interest spending must stop. And, if there is the political will to stop it, it can be stopped.

This effort for campaign finance reform must begin now. We have waited long enough. And the effort must be bipartisan. At a minimum, it must address these points:

  • guarantee funding for a reinvigorated partial public financing system
  • restrict the national political party money flowing into Wisconsin - this is the major source of soft money and it must be stopped.
  • treat the phoney "issue ads" as the political ads they are
  • limit money raised outside of the district of the candidate
  • prohibit both "bundling" and "pooling" of special interest money

The Governor made history yesterday with his election for a fourth term. Now its time for an historic effort to pass campaign finance reform.