Wisconsin Contributors Gave $1 Million-Plus To Three Electioneering Groups

January 20, 2015

Three electioneering groups that frequently sponsored negative broadcast ads and mailings during the state’s fall elections accepted more than $1 million each in 2014 from Wisconsin contributors, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

The electioneering groups, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but disclose few details about their wealthy backers, operate arms known as 527 groups – so named for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service rules that regulate them. Even though state laws are weak on requiring many well-heeled electioneering groups to disclose their funders and activities, the IRS requires 527 organizations to file fairly detailed fundraising and spending reports.

Electioneering groups whose 527 organizations received $1 million-plus in Wisconsin contributions were the Republican Governors Association, the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund and Emily’s List. The figures cover contributions through November 24. Final, year-end reports are pending.

The Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C., has received $3.15 million from Wisconsin contributors. The organization’s state political action committee – Right Direction Wisconsin – spent nearly $4 million mostly on six television ads to support incumbent GOP Governor Scott Walker in his successful reelection bid. The group’s largest Wisconsin contributors were Mike and Mary Sue Shannon of Milwaukee, who gave $2 million. Mike Shannon is co-founder of KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure businesses.

The Greater Wisconsin Political Fund received $2.11 million. It is one of four entities operated by the Madison-based Greater Wisconsin Committee, which supports Democratic candidates in local and state elections. The organization sponsored nearly a dozen television ads last fall – most of them in the governor’s race to support Democrat Mary Burke in her failed bid to defeat Walker. So far, the group has disclosed only $1.2 million in election spending by its political action committee .

The Greater Wisconsin Political Fund got all of its $2.11 million Wisconsin contributions from two of its other entities – the Greater Wisconsin Committee issue ad group and Greater Wisconsin’s PAC. These large transfers of money between a group’s entities – some arms that have to disclose donors and some that do not – is a shell-game frequently used to hide the true identities of their wealthy special interests backers. However, 527 reports over the years have shown Greater Wisconsin gets millions of dollars every election year from national unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, among others.

Emily’s List received $1.06 million from Wisconsin donors. The Washington, D.C., group supports women Democratic candidates for state and federal offices throughout the country. So far, the group has reported spending about $2.2 million through its state corporation – Wisconsin WOMEN VOTE – to support Burke. The leading Wisconsin contributor to Emily’s List in 2014 was the Brico Fund , which gave $1 million. The fund is a Milwaukee-based philanthropic organization created by Lynde Uihlein , a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates and environmental and women’s causes.