Wisconsin Governor’s Race Cost Nearly $82 Million

Posted: February 17, 2015
Updated: March 9, 2015

Candidates and outside electioneering groups spent a record $81.8 million in the 2014 governor’s race in Wisconsin, much of it on months of negative broadcast ads and mailings, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

The total cost of the 2014 governor’s race was about $900,000 higher than the $80.9 million spent by candidates and groups in the 2012 recall race for governor, and it was substantially more than ever spent in a regular general election race. Total spending in the 2014 governor’s race was 119 percent higher than the $37.4 million spent in the 2010 governor’s race, 153 percent higher than the $32.3 million spent in the 2006 governor’s race and 244 percent higher the $23.8 million spent in the 2002 race (see bar chart).

Chart: Candidate and Special Interest Group Spending in General Election Races for Governor

Republican candidates and outside groups spent an estimated $49 million – 50 percent more than the estimated $32.8 million spent by Democratic candidates and groups in the race. The sharp difference in spending was due to candidate, rather than outside group spending.

The five candidates for governor on the ballot and the two lieutenant governor candidates who won their primaries spent nearly $53.7 million, led by incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who spent a combined $36.4 million, more than double the $17.3 million spent by Walker’s opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, and running mate, John Lehman.

Independent expenditure and phony issue ad groups funded by often-veiled contributions from powerful ideological, business and union interests spent an estimated $28.1 million mostly on negative activities, like television ads, to smear the candidates (Table). Groups that supported Burke spent an estimated $15.4 million, and groups that supported Walker spent an estimated $12.7 million.

The top-spending groups were:

  • The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a Madison-based group that backs Democratic candidates for statewide, legislative and local offices, spent an estimated $6.7 million. Greater Wisconsin spent most of its cash in the governor’s race on negative broadcast ads to slam Walker for cuts to public education, accuse the incumbent of giving tax breaks to wealthy special interests and large campaign contributors, and of failing to create jobs and improve Wisconsin’s economy. Greater Wisconsin operates four arms – a phony issue ad group, PAC, corporation and 527 organization – and doesn’t disclose much of the money it raises and spends on elections. However, the organization gets much of its cash from Democratic ideological organizations and labor;
  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a powerful policymaking and electioneering force that backs Republican legislative and statewide candidates, spent an estimated $4.5 million. WMC, which supports Republican candidates, spent most of its money on television ads that claimed Walker cut taxes and government spending and improved the state economy, or that accused Burke of having a poor job creation record as a cabinet secretary under former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle. Although WMC operates as a phony issue ad group that doesn’t disclose any of its fundraising and spending, the organization relied on political groups to pay for some its activities. WMC received $1.4 million from the Republican Governors Association to help Walker;
  • The Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps elect GOP governors nationwide, spent nearly $4 million. In addition to giving money to WMC, the organization used a state PAC called Right Direction Wisconsin to support Walker mostly with television ads that criticized Burke’s job creation record as a former state commerce secretary and claimed her policies would increase taxes, government spending and unemployment. The association gets most of its cash from powerful trade organizations and corporations, and wealthy individuals.

Five additional outside groups – two that supported Walker and three that backed Burke – spent more than $1 million in the race. On Walker’s side, the National Rifle Association spent $2.5 million and Americans for Prosperity spent $1.1 million. On Burke’s side, We Are Wisconsin Political Fund spent $2.7 million, Wisconsin WOMEN Vote spent $2.2 million, and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters spent $1.3 million.

In addition to the governor’s race, candidates and special interests groups spent an estimated $6.5 million in the state attorney general’s race, including $3.7 million by outside interest groups and $2.8 million by four candidates.

Republican Brad Schimel, who won the open seat for attorney general, spent $1.37 million, and groups that supported him spent an estimated $1.7 million, for a total of nearly $3.1 million. Democrat Susan Happ spent $990,228 and groups that supported her spent an estimated $2 million for a total of $3 million.

Topping the list of electioneering groups in the attorney general’s race was WMC, which spent an estimated $1.5 million and sponsored two television ads – one that used testimonials from law enforcement officers to praise Schimel and another that accused Happ of seeking a light sentence against an offender in a child predator case she handled as district attorney.

After WMC, the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent an estimated $1 million, mostly on a television ad that criticized Schimel for his positions on birth control and sexual assault, and comments on interracial marriage.

The Democracy Campaign calculated the cost of the races for governor and attorney general using campaign finance reports filed with the Government Accountability Board by the candidates and some of the outside electioneering groups; fundraising and spending reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service by some electioneering groups; and television ad buys by outside electioneering groups that did not have to file fundraising and spending reports with the state.

For more details about the spending and electioneering activities of all of the independent expenditure and phony issue ad groups, click on the name of the group in the table below or go to the Democracy Campaign’s “Hijacking Campaign 2014” feature.

Spending by Outside Groups in the 2014 Governor’s Race

Group Amount
Greater Wisconsin Committee** $6,700,000
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC)* $4,500,000
Republican Governors Association $3,960,562
We Are Wisconsin Political Fund $2,729,603
National Rifle Association $2,532,741
Wisconsin WOMEN VOTE $2,217,699
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters $1,303,285
Americans for Prosperity* $1,100,000
NARAL Pro-Choice America* $600,000
Planned Parenthood $515,253
Workers’ Voice $456,417
Progressive Kick Wisconsin $411,000
Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance* $200,000
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union $170,496
Fire Fighters for a Better Wisconsin $159,420
America’s Political Action Committee* $156,260
Service Employees International Union $138,754
Volunteers for Agriculture $69,859
Conservatives for Scott Walker $63,500
Faith and Freedom Coalition* $50,000
Citizen Action of Wisconsin $25,000
Voces de la Frontera $21,641
Wisconsin Family Action $17,876
Progressives for Victory 2014 $13,843
Fair Wisconsin $9,947
International Association of Fire Fighters $1,869
Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin $1,527
Wisconsin Right to Life $700
Educators for Better Schools $537
TOTAL $28,127,789

*Estimated spending for undisclosed issue ad spending.
**Estimated spending for undisclosed issue ad and disclosed independent expenditures.