Rich Get Richer

Most Campaign Cash Goes to Handful of Top Leaders

February 18, 2004

Madison - Campaign fundraising among state office holders in the last half of 2003 was decidedly top-heavy as a few political heavyweights and leadership-controlled campaign committees soaked up most of the campaign cash while rank and file lawmakers raised money at a relatively sluggish pace, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis of the latest campaign finance reports shows.

Democratic Governor James Doyle raised the most money in the period, $944,904, and has amassed a formidable campaign cash balance of $950,552. Doyle’s figures surpass even the fundraising successes of former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson for comparable periods. In the last half of 1999 Thompson raised $295,145 and had $418,717 on hand. In the last six months of 1995, Thompson raised $441,681 and had $741,120 on hand.

Assembly Speaker John Gard raised $156,965 in the last six months of 2003 - more than twice as much as any other legislator - leaving him with a campaign war chest of $138,097 heading into the election year.

Overall, figures from legislators’ campaign finance reports show they raised $1.31 million and had cash on hand totaling $3.16 million at the start of the 2004 election year. The top 13 legislative fundraisers took in more - $668,464 - than the rest of the 132-member Legislature combined (see Appendix 1: Table 1).

In addition to individual legislative committees, legislative leaders sharply increased fundraising for their legislative campaign committees (see Appendix 1: Table 2). The four LCCs raised $296,183 in the last half of 2003, which is up 115 percent from the $138,072 two years ago.

"Big donors have figured out they only have to donate to the governor and a handful of top legislative leaders who call all the shots," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "Wisconsin used to have one of the most decentralized legislatures in the country. Today we have one of the most centrally controlled. Most of the elected representatives of the people of the state are little more than ornaments. They have little say on public policy and have little choice but to walk lockstep behind their leaders. The maverick spirit that used to permeate Wisconsin politics has been exterminated by a system where campaign purse strings are in the hands of a powerful few."

Fundraising by Gard, who was elected Assembly Speaker in late 2002, is a particularly striking example of how money flows to power. The $156,965 Gard raised in the last six months of 2003 compares to the $16,387 and $15,690 he raised in comparable periods in the last six months of 2001 and 1999, respectively, when he was not speaker.

On the other side of the coin, Senator Chuck Chvala, perennially one of the Legislature’s leading fundraisers when he was Democratic leader, raised a mere $1,261 in the last half of 2003 now that he no longer holds a leadership position and appears to be on his way out. Sun Prairie Democrat Tom Hebl and Madison Democrat Mark Miller were second and fifth in fundraising in the Assembly, respectively, because both are prospective candidates for the 16th Senate District seat held by Chvala. Chvala has been charged with 19 felonies, including extortion, and may face trial later this year.

Other top Assembly fundraisers along with Gard, Hebl and Miller were GOP Majority Leader Steve Foti with $28,955 and Marathon Republican Jerry Petrowski with $28,134.

Top Senate fundraisers were Republican Joseph Leibham of Sheboygan, who narrowly beat an incumbent Democrat for his seat in 2002, with $65,963; Republican Ted Kanavas of Brookfield, a member of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, with $62,186; GOP Majority Leader Mary Panzer of West Bend, with $60,708; and Republican Alberta Darling of River Hills, who is co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, with $57,100.

Other top fundraisers in the Senate were Republican Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls with $57,061 and Democrats Robert Wirch of Kenosha with $35,589 and Dave Hansen of Green Bay with $31,216. The seats held by Harsdorf, Wirch and Hansen, who are facing reelection in November, have been targeted races in previous elections.

Six legislators - four Republicans and two Democrats - had more than $100,000 in their campaign war chests at the end of 2003 (see Appendix 1: Table 3). Senator Michael Ellis, a Neenah Republican, led the list with $203,737 followed by Democratic Representative Spencer Black of Madison with $144,457; Gard with $138,097; Democratic Representative Sheldon Wasserman of Milwaukee with $136,687; GOP Representative Scott Jensen of Waukesha with $115,243; and Darling with $107,605.

Republicans as a whole dominate fundraising because they are the majority party in both houses. Two years ago, Senate Democrats, who held an 18-15 majority, raised 3.5 times more in the last half of 2001 than Senate Republicans. Now with the majority reversed, Senate Republicans raised 2.6 times more than Senate Democrats in the last half of 2003. Assembly Republicans raised 3.4 times more than Assembly Democrats in the last six months of 2003 and collectively had 43 percent more cash on hand at the end of 2003 (see table below).

Senate Democrats Republicans
Amount Raised (July - December, 2003) $158,887 $412,301
Cash on Hand (December 31, 2003) $439,740 $686,422
Assembly Democrats Republicans
Amount Raised (July - December, 2003) $168,725 $569,900
Cash on Hand (December 31, 2003) $742,287 $1,296,113

Total legislative fundraising was down nearly 15 percent from the $1.53 million in contributions legislators accepted in the last half of 2001 and about 4 percent down from the $1.38 million legislators received in the last six months of 1999. Their cash on hand was 26 percent lower than the $4.3 million they had at the start of 2002 and nearly 6 percent higher than the $3 million on hand at the start of 2000.

There are several factors that possibly explain the decline in fundraising and cash on hand compared to previous years, including:

  • Redistricting in 2000 made more seats safer for incumbents in both parties. Only 16 of 115 legislators received less than 55 percent of the vote in their last election. Many incumbents may consider their jobs so safe they do not believe they have to raise money.
  • Most first-term legislators lack the connections to raise a lot of money. That makes it likely they will depend on party leaders to tap wealthy contributors through vehicles like the leadership-run LCCs or the Majority GOP conduit to infuse their campaigns with cash in a pinch or in the homestretch of the election.
  • Hard-fought special elections last summer for two Assembly seats and two Senate seats as well as the governor’s aggressive ongoing fundraising diverted contributions from wealthy contributors that would have gone to other candidates.
  • Numerous scandals involving past and present legislators and constant pressure to comprehensively reform state campaign finance and ethics laws may be prompting many to cut back on fundraising, particularly during legislative sessions, and avoid pay-to-play relationships with wealthy contributors.
  • The big money likely to influence campaigns will come later this year in the form of independent expenditures and issue ads that fuel negative mailings and attack ads and whose sources are difficult and sometimes impossible to identify via current campaign finance laws.

Appendix 1Appendix 2