Wisconsin Contributions to Some Dark Money Groups Set Record $8.7 Million in 2014

March 16, 2015

Wisconsin individuals, businesses, unions, and trade groups contributed a record $8.7 million in 2014 to electioneering groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising, mailings and other activities to attack or promote candidates in state and federal elections.

The $8.7 million which Wisconsin contributors gave so-called 527 groups in 2014 was 93 percent more than the previous record $4.5 million that flowed from Wisconsin contributors to 527s in 2012, and more than two-and-a-half times the $3.3 million in 2010 and the $3 million in 2008 that Wisconsin contributors gave to 527 groups.

These 527 organizations are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them. Outside special interest groups that are involved in Wisconsin elections that also operate 527 arms include the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Republican Governors Association, and Emily’s List .

Democratic-leaning 527 groups received nearly $4.8 million from Wisconsin contributors and Republican-leaning 527 groups accepted nearly $4 million from Wisconsin donors.

Wealthy special interests, including individuals, groups and businesses, often create or contribute to 527 organizations because 527s can accept contributions that would be illegal to give directly to candidates. For instance, state and federal campaign finance laws limit the amount an individual or political committee can give directly to candidates and prohibit certain sources, such as corporations, from giving to candidates. 527 groups are not subject to such restrictions.

In Wisconsin, individuals are limited to giving $500 to Assembly candidates, $1,000 to Senate candidates and $10,000 to candidates for statewide office, such as governor, in a year. But individuals can give unlimited cash to 527 groups to support or oppose candidates.

Three Wisconsin contributors gave more than $1 million to 527 groups in 2014. They were:

  • Mike and Mary Sue Shannon, of Milwaukee, who contributed $2 million to the Republican Governors Association and $10,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association. Mike Shannon is a managing partner of KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure businesses, and Mary Sue as a homemaker. The Republican Governors Association spent about $4 million in the 2014 fall elections to help reelect GOP Governor Scott Walker;
  • The Greater Wisconsin Committee and its political action committee contributed $1.8 million to its 527 group, the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund. The Greater Wisconsin Committee operates four entities – an issue ad group, 527 group, PAC and corporation that are all similar in name – to support Democratic candidates for state and local offices. Greater Wisconsin is among numerous outside electioneering groups that shuffle large amounts of money among their various arms to make it difficult to track their actual donors. But state and federal reports filed by some of their entities over the years show Greater Wisconsin gets the bulk of its cash from labor unions and other Democratic ideological groups. The Greater Wisconsin Committee spent an estimated $8.5 million in the 2014 fall elections, mostly to oppose Walker and support Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke;
  • Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein and her Brico Fund contributed nearly $1.3 million to the League of Conservation Voters and Emily’s List, a Washington, D.C., group that supports women Democratic candidates for state and federal offices around the country. In turn, Emily’s List spent $2.2 million and the league spent about $1.4 million in the 2014 fall elections, mostly to oppose Walker or support Burke.

Three 527 groups received more than $1 million in contributions from Wisconsin donors. Topping the list were the Republican Governors Association, which received more than $3.1 million; the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, which received $2.1 million; and Emily’s List, which received nearly $1.1 million.