Legislative Challengers in Big Financial Hole

Huge War Chests Show Advantages of Incumbency

July 27, 1998

Madison - The advantages of incumbency were highlighted again last week as candidates filed reports detailing their fund raising for the first six months of 1998. The bottom line: Wisconsin’s legislative incumbents are well-stocked heading into the 1998 elections. "It is the year of the incumbent," declared Gail Shea, executive director pf the non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Incumbents seeking re-election had a total of $1,956,039 on hand as of June 30, 1998. Challengers, meanwhile, had $46,808 available to spend on their campaigns. Assembly incumbents enjoy a stunning 64 to 1 advantage in cash on hand over their challengers. In the Senate, incumbents have a cash advantage of 25 to 1.

War Chests - The Incumbent Advantage

Status State Senate State Assembly
Incumbents $702,004 $1,254,035
Challengers $27,349 $19,459
Open Seat Candidates $113,852 $104,815

"Those candidates who were not scared out of running by the prospect of facing these huge war chests will be behind the game financially for the entire election," said Shea. "Voters lose under this skewed system; first when good candidates are kept from running, and again when incumbents can drown out the opposition.

Several legislative candidates have amassed war chests well above current spending limits and even above limits recommended by reform organizations like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Largest War Chests

State Senate State Assembly
Candidate Party Amount Candidate Party Amount
Michael G. Ellis R $158,085 Tom Sykora R $107,766
Brian B. Burke D $99,896  Spencer Black D $101,425 
Kimberly M. Plache D $60,457  Scott R. Jensen R $80,827 
Dale W. Schultz R $56,458  Bonnie L. Ladwig R $48,668 
Rodney C. Moen D $56,326  Carol Kelso R $39,619 
All are incumbents

Legislative candidates raised a total of $1,280,884 in the first half of 1998. Nearly all of the top fund raisers are incumbents or candidates for open seats.

"The huge amounts being raised is the result of our broken campaign finance system," said Shea. "The money driving it is provided by special interests who will look for returned favors as soon as these candidates get into office. The voter is left as a bit player in a system that is supposed revolve around the voter."

Top Fund Raisers

State Senate State Assembly
Candidate Status Party Amount Candidate Status Party Amount
Nancy Mistele O R $46,058 Scott R. Jensen I R $67,629
Scott Fitzgerald I R $40,959 Spencer Black I D $27,724
Jon Erpenbach O D $36,345 Don Hasenohrl I D $27,031
Michael Ellis I R $35,754 Rick Skindrud I R $26,164
Dale Schultz I R $29,145 John Gard I R $22,571

Key for Status: O=Open Seat, I=Incumbent.

Shea said the main difference between the figures from two years ago and those for 1998 is the focus on open seats for this fall’s elections. "Even moderately-well funded challengers are hard to find this time around. If you’re not an incumbent or a candidate for an open seat, campaign money is not flowing your way.

"We must reclaim the system of one person, one vote. Candidates deserve a level playing field. Voters deserve the opportunity to take part in a vigorous debate about the issues. And everyone in a democracy deserves to be part of an election free from special interest domination. Let us hope this is the last election that big money plays such a role," said Shea.