Special Interests Spent $19 Million On Electioneering

Legislative candidate spending hits record $10 million+

February 21, 2007

Madison - Special interest groups spent $19 million on mostly negative broadcast advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities in the 2006 races for statewide office and the legislature – three times more than what they spent in 2002 and 11 times more than in the 1998 elections, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

A review of special interest independent expenditures and undisclosed issue ad spending in the races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the Assembly and the Senate showed outside groups doled out $18.97 million in 2006, compared to $6.2 million in 2002 and $1.67 million in 1998 (see chart 1). Special interests spent an estimated $14.99 million on secret electioneering in the form of issue ads and $3.98 million on independent expenditures in 2006.

Chart 1

Special Interest Electioneering Spending in State Races

WDC previously found special interests set records for electioneering activities in the governor and attorney general races, spending $12.5 million and $3.6 million, respectively. In the legislative races, outside groups spent $2.86 million in 2006, a record in an election year where statewide contests – particularly the governor’s race – traditionally reduce direct candidate contributions and spending and outside special interest group spending in legislative races compared to election years that feature only legislative contests. Special interests spent $1.94 million in 2002 and $1.62 million in 1998 on outside electioneering activities in legislative races. Their 2006 spending was third overall to the $6.65 million special interests spent on electioneering in the 2004 legislative races and $5.05 million in 2000.

Total spending by outside special interests, legislative candidates and the four legislative campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders was $13.04 million in 2006, again a record in a legislative election year coupled with statewide races. That spending was 26 percent higher than the $10.32 million in total spending in 2002 and 60 percent higher than the $8.17 million in total spending in legislative races in 1998 (see Chart 2).

Chart 2

Total Spending by Legislative Committees and Special Interests on Legislative Races

Like the candidates for governor and attorney general, legislative candidates also set spending records in 2006 and not just for an election year where they had to compete for contributions flowing to statewide races.

Legislative candidates and the four legislative campaign committees spent a record $10.18 million in 2006 (see Chart 3), according to campaign finance reports they filed with the State Elections Board. Compared to previous years with races for governor and other statewide offices that is 21 percent more than the $8.38 million they spent in 2002 and 55 percent more than the $6.57 million they spent in 1998. The previous spending record for legislative races – candidate and leadership committees combined – was $9.95 million in 2004.

Legislative candidate committee spending alone also set a record, as did spending by the four legislative campaign committees. Candidate committees spent $8.93 million in 2006 compared to $8.81 million in 2004, $7.59 million in 2002, $7.45 million in 2000 and $5.64 million in 1998.

The four legislative campaign committees – the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and the State Senate Democratic Committee – are used by legislative leaders to raise money from powerful special interests to help retain and increase the number of Democratic and Republican candidates elected to the Assembly and Senate. The four committees spent a combined $1.25 million in 2006 compared to $1.14 million in 2004, $786,568 in 2002, $959,895 in 2000, $922,249 in 1998 and $1.14 million in 1996.

Chart 3

Legislative Candidate and Leadership Committee Spending

Ninety-eight of 116 – or 85 percent – of legislative races were won by the candidate who spent the most money, often several times more than their opponent. For instance, the 116 winners collectively spent $5.07 million while the 117 losers, which include primary candidates, spent $3.86 million.

Outside spending in legislative races which included an estimated $2.2 million in secret issue ad spending and $663,993 in disclosed independent expenditures was heaviest in only a handful of Assembly and Senate races.

Five races – two in the Assembly and three in the Senate – were targeted seats held by Republican incumbents, four of whom lost. Six other seats – five in the Assembly and one in the Senate – were open seats in which the incumbent was not running for reelection. The three targeted Senate races and the open Senate seat – also won by a Democrat – swung control of the Senate to the Democrats by an 18-15 margin. Most of the $2.2 million in secret issue ad spending was done in Senate races.

The three most expensive legislative races saw the combined spending by the candidates in each race exceed a half million dollars. Go here for a complete list of legislative candidates and the amounts they spent in 2006.

The most hotly contested race was for the open seat in the 21st Senate District where Democrat John Lehman defeated Republican William McReynolds to succeed retiring Republican Senator Cathy Stepp. It drew $188,806 in independent expenditures and untold secret spending from powerful special interests, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization; the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union; the pro-school voucher group All Children Matter; the Greater Wisconsin Committee which doled out $4 million on undisclosed issue ads to help reelect Democratic Governor Jim Doyle; Planned Parenthood; the League of Conservation Voters; and the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, among others.

A complaint was filed against All Children Matter for one of their anti-Lehman negative mailings. The State Elections Board is investigating whether the group filed a false campaign finance report or used illegal campaign contributions in connection with the mailing.

That race also saw the most spent by the candidates combined in a legislative contest – $594,002 – including $393,610 by McReynolds – the most spent by a legislative candidate in 2006.

In the 23rd Senate District where Democratic challenger Pat Kreitlow defeated long time Republican incumbent Dave Zien the candidates spent a combined $544,973, including $304,292 by Zien, who was second to McReynolds in spending by a legislative candidate.

The Zien-Kreitlow race drew undisclosed issue ad spending and $56,093 in independent expenditures by the American Federation of Teachers, Planned Parenthood, Building Wisconsin’s Future, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, All Children Matter, the Wisconsin Gun Owners Political Action Committee, Wisconsin Right to Life, National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s PAC, among others.

In the 31st Senate District where Democratic challenger Kathleen Vinehout defeated freshman incumbent Republican Ron Brown the candidates spent a combined $509,376, including $287,299 by Brown, the third highest of any legislative candidate. The Greater Wisconsin Committee did secret issue ad spending against Brown in that race, and $65,249 was spent on independent expenditures by Wisconsin Right to Life, Planned Parenthood, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s PAC, the Wisconsin Hospital Association PAC and the Middleton-based Working Families PAC which spent all of its $45,273 on this race to support Brown.

The other incumbent Republican senator who lost was Tom Reynolds in the 5th District where he and Democratic challenger Jim Sullivan combined to spend $383,443, the fourth highest combined candidate spending in a race. Both candidates were among the top 10 biggest spenders. The race drew issue ad spending by the Greater Wisconsin Committee and Building Wisconsin’s Future and $42,148 in independent expenditures from the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Greater Wisconsin Committee and Planned Parenthood, among others.

Two Assembly races that saw a lot of interference from issue ad and independent expenditure groups were the 54th and 62nd district contests where the candidates’ combined spending produced the Assembly’s two most expensive races. Both contests were for open seats.

In the 54th Assembly District where Democrat Gordon Hintz defeated Republican Julie Pung Leschke the candidates spent a combined $227,396 and independent expenditure groups, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Planned Parenthood and the Wisconsin Hospital and Wisconsin Right to Life PACs, spent another $27,429. Issue ad groups involved in the race included All Children Matter, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Wisconsin Family Action.

Wisconsin Family Action is a lobbying tool for the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, a group that engaged in both disclosed and secret spending on electioneering activities to urge passage of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Wisconsin Family Action bankrolled a negative mailing against Hintz using a postcard that showed two men in tuxedoes and said Hintz opposed passage of the amendment. The mailing prompted Pung Leschke’s campaign treasurer to announce she had quit the campaign in late October because of the large amount of outside money and negative advertising in the race.

In the 62nd Assembly District race where Democrat Cory Mason defeated Republican Van Wanggaard the candidates spent a combined $213,818 and independent expenditure groups, including All Children Matter, Planned Parenthood, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and the Wisconsin Hospital Association PAC, among others, spent $20,375.

For more information about these special interest groups and the candidates they supported and opposed visit the “Hijacking Campaign 2006” feature on our website.

Issue ad groups do not report their fundraising and spending activities because a loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws let special interests keep that information secret if their ads do not explicitly tell listeners to vote for or against a candidate. Groups that make independent expenditures must file reports with the state that publicly identify their fundraising and spending because their advertisements explicitly tell listeners how to vote. However, anyone who views negative phony issue ads knows who the group sponsoring it supports or opposes without being explicitly told.

Issue ad groups are free to use unlimited labor union and business funds that could not legally be contributed directly to candidates for public office in Wisconsin. In addition to the sources of the funds, the contributions these issue ad groups solicit sometimes greatly exceed the legal limit on contributions that can be made directly to a candidate.

Independent expenditure groups can spend unlimited amounts on their electioneering activities, but unlike issue ads groups they must publicly report their fundraising and spending, obey campaign contribution limits and cannot use corporate money on these activities.

Candidate Spending by AmountCandidate Spending by District