Big Spenders Rule Legislative Races

Candidates Who Spent the Most Win 106 of 116 Races

February 24, 2003

Madison - Legislative candidates who spent the most money in 2002 won nine of every 10 races up for grabs last November, according to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis released today.

The leading spenders, most of whom were officeholders running for reelection with large war chests amassed with special interest contributions, won 106 of 116 races in the Legislature. Only 10 races were won by candidates who did not spend the most money in 2002.

In the Senate 16 of 17 seats were won by the biggest spenders in each contest. In 14 races the winners were incumbents or officeholders from the Assembly who used the advantages of incumbency and special interest cash to keep their seats or move up to the Senate. In the Assembly, 90 of 99 seats were captured by the biggest spenders in those races.

These findings are based on campaign finance reports filed by the candidates and posted on the State Elections Board web site. Many of the reports have not been audited, and the WDC analysis found and adjusted for errors in campaign finance reports filed by the candidates and data posted by the board.

The analysis includes candidates in uncontested races on the November ballot because while some of those who ran unopposed spent very little in the general election, they used their large campaign war chests earlier to defeat primary opponents or simply scare off primary and general election opponents.

In several cases, the candidates who spent the most also were aided by large amounts of special interest cash via independent expenditures and issue ads that flowed in from outside of the district.

In 2002, legislative candidates spent a record $7.54 million and special interests injected another $1.94 million in legislative elections.

Spending by legislative candidates in 2002 was 34 percent higher than in 1998 when the previous race for governor and other statewide offices occurred and legislative candidates spent $5.64 million. The increase in spending is more than triple the 10 percent inflation rate during the four-year period.

Legislative candidate spending was 1 percent higher than the $7.45 million spent in the 2000 elections when there were no races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Candidates in those three races accepted $13.4 million in contributions in 2002, a portion of which would have otherwise gone to legislative candidates and fueled even higher spending.

Reported spending on legislative races by special interests that make independent expenditures was at least $484,219 - led by the Wisconsin Education Association Council which spent $183,244 and Volunteers for Agriculture which spent $97,380. In addition, a growing number of powerful special interests engaged in secretive spending on issue ads estimated at $1.45 million.

Independent expenditures for legislative races totaled $2.5 million in 2000, $1.1 million in 1998 and $771,043 in the 1996 elections. The amount spent on undisclosed issue ads in the 2002 legislative elections compares to an estimated $2.5 million in 2000 and $526,000 in 1998.

Independent expenditures are campaign activities purportedly done without the help or knowledge of the candidate, including radio, television and newspapers ads and direct mail. There is no limit on what a group can spend independently to support or oppose a candidate but they are required to report their spending and sources of income. No corporate money can be used for independent expenditures because of Wisconsin’s century-old ban on corporate donations to political campaigns.

But there is a growing trend by powerful special interests to spend more on phony issues ads than on independent expenditures because the state’s old and broken campaign finance laws do not require issue ad groups to disclose the amount and source of money they spend.

Groups that used phony issue ads to influence the legislative elections included Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce which openly solicits corporate money to pay for issue ads, WEAC, the pro-Democratic Independent Citizens for Democracy and pro-school choice groups including the American Education Reform Foundation and the Coalition for America’s Families.

Senate candidates (Appendix: Table 1) spent $3.1 million in 2002, compared to $3.1 million in 2000 and $2.17 million in 1998, a 43 percent increase. The most expensive Senate race was in the 9th District where the candidates and independent groups spent $788,628, including $403,471 by Republican Joe Leibham who won, $143,802 by incumbent Democrat James Baumgart and $241,355 by independent expenditure groups.

Independent expenditure groups spent more last fall on this race than Baumgart spent in all of 2002. WEAC spent all of its $183,244 in independent expenditures on this race to oppose Leibham and support Baumgart.

The second most expensive Senate race also saw an incumbent beaten. In the 21st District the candidates and independent expenditure groups spent $722,327 including $349,603 by Republican challenger Cathy Stepp who won, $307,026 by incumbent Democrat Kimberly Plache, Republican John Knuteson who was beaten in the primary and $35,262 by independent expenditure groups. Most of those independent expenditures - $30,000 - were unloaded against Plache by Building a Better Wisconsin, a pro-construction political action committee. Stepp owns a construction company and most of the industry traditionally supports Republican candidates.

Leibham, Stepp and Plache led spending by Senate candidates, and Leibham was just $5,808 short of setting a new candidate spending record for a Senate seat. Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf captured the 10th Senate District in 2000, spending a record $409,279.

Top Spenders - January 1, 2002 - December 31, 2002

Senate Candidates Assembly Candidates
Joseph Leibham
R-Sheboygan
$403,471 Rick Skindrud
R-Mount Horeb
$122,946
Cathy Stepp
R-Sturtevant
$349,603 Scott Jensen
R-Waukesha
$122,514
Kimberly Plache
D-Racine
$307,026 Mark Gundrum
R-New Berlin
$109,868
Ron Brown
R-Eau Claire
$238,953 Debi Towns
R-Janesville
$102,858
Tom Reynolds
R-West Allis
$204,480 Steve Foti
R-Oconomowoc
$97,429

Assembly candidates (Appendix: Table 2) spent $4.44 million compared to $4.35 million in 2000 and $3.47 million in 1998, a 28 percent increase. The most expensive race was in the Assembly 79th, the candidates and independent expenditure groups spent $232,555, including $122,946 by Republican Rep. Rick Skindrud who lost, $57,492 by Democrat Sondy Pope-Roberts and $52,117 by independent expenditure groups.

Another expensive race in the Assembly 43rd cost candidates and special interests $216,117. Republican winner Debi Towns spent $102,858 - nearly double the $53,397 spent by her challenger, Democrat Jerry Lowrie. Six other candidates who lost in the primary spent a total of $44,002. Independent expenditures kicked in another $15,860 mostly from Volunteers for Agriculture, a political action committee of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. The group generally backs Republican candidates and spent $10,888 on this race.

Skindrud led all Assembly candidates in spending closely followed by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen who spent $122,514 to win in the 98th District and Republican Mark Gundrum who spent $109,868 to win in the 84th District.

Appendix