March 5, 2018
Nearly 500 Wisconsin contributors gave a record $4.5 million in 2017 to political nonprofit groups that can raise and spend unlimited cash to influence state and federal elections.
These so-called 527 groups, which are named for the IRS rules that govern them, are run by a host of powerful special interests, like business, health care, manufacturing, energy, transportation, and conservative and liberal ideological concerns. These groups sponsor broadcast ads, mailings, automated phone calls, and other electioneering activities to praise or smear Democratic and Republican candidates at election time.
The Wisconsin contributions to 527 groups in 2017 beat the previous record of nearly $3.5 million in contributions for an odd-numbered year set in 2011. State contributions to these groups in 2015 totaled more than $2.5 million.
The Wisconsin contributions to these groups came from individuals, unions, businesses, trade organizations, tribes, and political committees that state and federal campaign finance laws frequently restrict or prohibit from giving directly to candidates.
Ten Wisconsin contributors gave $100,000 or more and eight of those contributors gave $200,000 or more to 527 groups in 2017. The top contributors were:
Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, $914,000. The organization, which claims 1,800 southeastern Wisconsin members, gave to 527 groups that back Republican legislative and statewide candidates – the Republican Governors Association, Republican State Leadership Committee, and the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, $900,200. Abele, who was first elected county executive in 2011, is also a businessman and philanthropist who traditionally supports Democratic candidates and groups. Abele’s 527 contributions went to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which backs lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender candidates nationwide, and Emerge Wisconsin, which helps elect women Democratic candidates.
Forest County Potawatomi, $450,000. The tribe contributed to the Republican Governors Association, the Republican State Leadership Committee, Republican Attorneys General Association and its own 527 group, the Forest County Potawatomi Action Fund. The Potawatomi tribe operates a casino in Milwaukee and was one of the big winners from a decision by Walker in 2015 to reject a proposed $800 million casino that the Menominee tribe wanted to build in Kenosha.
Greater Wisconsin Political Action Committee (PAC), $273,700. The Madison-based Greater Wisconsin Committee spends millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates for state and local offices. The Greater Wisconsin PAC’s 527 contribution went to its 527 group, the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund. The group frequently transfers cash between its issue ad, 527, PAC, and corporate arms to hide its fundraising activities.
Wisconsin Realtors Association, $257,774. This statewide trade and lobbying group’s contribution went to its own 527 group, the Wisconsin Realtors Advocacy Fund. The 527 group, a corporation, and a phony issue ad group all operated by the association generally support Republicans for legislative and statewide offices.
Shannon 2006 Revocable Trust, $250,000. The trust, which is controlled by Republican mega-donors Mike and Mary Sue Shannon, of Brookfield, made its contribution to the Republican Governors Association.
American Transmission Co., $210,450. The company owns and operates high-voltage electric transmission lines throughout the Upper Midwest. The company made its 527 contributions to the Republican Governors Association, Republican State Leadership Committee, and the Democratic Governors Association.
Diane Hendricks, $200,000. The Beloit billionaire owns ABC Supply and has been a staunch backer of conservative and Republican causes and candidates throughout the country. Hendricks, who has contributed about $546,000 to GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s campaigns for governor, made her 527 contributions to the Republican Governors Association, which Walker led in 2017.
Johnson Controls, $111,350. The multi-national conglomerate, which makes heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment for nonresidential buildings, made its 527 contributions to the Republican Governors Association, Republican State Leadership Committee, and the Democratic Governors Association.
Ho-Chunk Nation, $101,800. Once known as the Winnebago Tribe, the Ho-Chunk owns and operates about a half-dozen casinos and associated hotels and restaurants in Wisconsin. The tribe made its 527 contributions to the Republican Governors Association.