Special Interest Sugar Daddies Buy Elections

Top-spending candidates almost always win unless smear groups tip the scales

July 9, 2009

Madison - Raising and spending more money than your opponent practically guarantees a legislative candidate a job in Wisconsin unless a special interest group with deep pockets takes an interest in you and your future, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

Legislative campaign finance reports show November 2008 ballot candidates who spent more than their opponents won 86 percent or 99 of the 115 seats up for election in the Assembly and Senate. Winners outspent losers $6.35 million to $4.24 million.

Money appeared to be the deciding factor in even more races – 105 of 115 or 91 percent – when the spending of well-heeled special interest electioneering groups like the Wisconsin Education Association Council, All Children Matter, Greater Wisconsin Committee, Coalition for America’s Families and others is taken into account. Outside groups raised and spent a record $7.1 million in 2008 legislative races and more than compensated for the financial disadvantage faced by several lesser-spending candidates.

The Democracy Campaign found that six of 16 winning candidates who spent less than their opponents had more outside money spent on their behalf than was spent by their opponents.

Here’s a look at those races:

Assembly District 2: Incumbent Republican Frank Lasee, a 14-year Assembly veteran, spent more than three times more than his opponent, Democratic challenger Ted Zigmunt – $65,235 versus $20,458. But even name recognition and the other advantages of incumbency could not overcome the $276,488 spent by the state’s largest teachers union on mostly negative television ads against Lasee, who attracted only $5 in outside support.

Assembly District 43: Incumbent Democrat Kim Hixson, a freshman whose Republican challenger Debi Towns held this seat from 2002 until 2006, was only slightly outspent – $84,136 versus $88,124 by Towns. However, outside groups led by WEAC spent $550,600 to support Hixson, quadrupling the roughly $100,000 spent by All Children Matter and others to back Towns.

Assembly District 57: An open seat contest that pitted Republican Jo Egelhoff, who spent $117,891, against Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber, who doled out $110,382. But special interest spending was likely more in Schaber’s favor. The Greater Wisconsin Committee, Advancing Wisconsin and others spent an estimated $130,000 to $150,000 to back Schaber while the Club for Growth, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, All Children Matter and others spent $75,000 to $100,000 to support Egelhoff.

Assembly District 68: Incumbent Republican Terry Moulton spent $20,000 more than his Democratic challenger Kristen Dexter – $144,750 versus $124,716. But special interests led by WEAC spent an estimated $450,000 to support Dexter while All Children Matter, Wisconsin Family Action and other Republican-leaning groups spent an estimated $240,000 to help Moulton.

Assembly District 90: Incumbent Republican Karl Van Roy was substantially outspent by his Democratic challenger Lou Ann Weix $98,604 to $66,772. But Van Roy had an estimated $125,000 worth of outside help from All Children Matter, the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership and others. Weix had an estimated $40,000 in support from outside special interests.

Assembly District 37: Incumbent Democrat Andy Jorgensen spent less than his Republican challenger Kent Koebke – $69,083 versus $72,441. But Jorgensen had $15,269 in backing from outside groups led by Advancing Wisconsin, compared to $5 on behalf of Koebke.

To see how much each legislative candidate on the November 2008 ballot spent, please go here. To learn more about the outside smear groups referred to in this report please see the “Hijacking Campaign 2008” feature on our website.

Ironically, the legislature’s two most expensive races in 2008 were won by the lesser-spending candidates. One race – in the Assembly 47th District – featured a gang of smear groups on both sides doling out cash to support the candidates. The other race – in the Senate 8th – saw the candidates raising and spending record amounts and less interference from outside groups.

The Assembly 47th was the most expensive race in 2008 and the most expensive Assembly race to date. The seven primary candidates and outside special interests spent nearly $1.4 million. After the primary Republican Keith Ripp, who later won the seat, and the outside special interests that supported him spent an estimated $575,000 while Democrat Trish O’Neil and her special interest backers spent an estimated $725,000.

In the Senate 8th, the two candidates spent a combined $1.2 million with special interests kicking in an additional $52,000. Both Darling, who spent $479,076, and Wasserman, who spent $722,333, broke the previous record for spending by a legislative candidate – $450,664 set in a 2003 Senate special election. In addition, Darling got more than $10,000 and Wasserman received nearly $41,000 in electioneering support from outside special interests.

The Democracy Campaign also found the ratio of legislative candidates who spent the most and won in 2008 was relatively unchanged from previous legislative elections. In 2006, 98 of 116 seats, or 85 percent, were won by the biggest spender. In 2004, 101 of 115, or 88 percent, of legislative races were won by the biggest spender, and in 2002, 106 of 116, or 91 percent, of the seats were won by the candidate who spent the most.

Spending