Wisconsin Contributors Give $1.2 Million to Some Dark Money Groups

October 10, 2015

A philanthropist, an energy transmission company, and an outside electioneering group were among the top Wisconsin donors during the first half of 2015 to some dark money groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to attack state and federal candidates.

About 420 Wisconsin individuals, businesses, unions, trade groups, and political committees contributed $1.2 million to so-called 527 organizations. This latest six-month tally of Wisconsin contributions to 527s follows a record $8.7 million doled out in 2014 to these organizations from the Badger State.

Nearly a fourth of the Wisconsin contributors to 527s were non-individuals, but they accounted for about $755,500, or 63 percent, of the total contributions. About 330 Wisconsin individuals contributed about $440,000 to 527 groups in amounts ranging from $8 to $171,000.

The top Wisconsin contributors to 527s during the first half of 2015 were:

  • Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, $171,000. Uihlein is a longtime backer of Democratic candidates and environmental and women’s causes. Uihlein’s latest 527 contributions include $130,000 to Wisconsin Progress, a Madison-based group, and $30,000 to Emerge Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. Both organizations recruit and train Democratic candidates for state and local offices;
  • American Transmission Co., in Waukesha, $160,000. The company owns and operates high- voltage electric transmission lines throughout the Upper Midwest. The company’s top contributions to 527 groups were $100,000 to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and $50,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), both in Washington D.C. The RGA raises and spends tens of millions of dollars to elect GOP governors nationwide, including Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and has been one of the top-spending outside electioneering groups in Wisconsin since 2010. The RSLC raises and spends money to support GOP legislative candidates throughout the country, including Wisconsin;
  • Greater Wisconsin Committee, in Madison, $65,000. The committee spends millions of dollars, mostly on broadcast advertising, to support Democratic candidates for state and local offices. The Greater Wisconsin Committee’s contributions include $40,000 from its political action committee (PAC) to its 527 group, the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, and $25,000 to Wisconsin Progress. The Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spends money on disclosed and undisclosed electioneering activities, frequently transfers cash between its issue ad, 527, PAC, and corporate arms to hide its fundraising activities. But the group gets most of its support from unions and Democratic ideological groups;
  • Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, $50,000. Abele, who was first elected county executive in 2011, is a businessman and philanthropist who contributed more than $133,000 between 2000 and 2014 to Democratic candidates for state and legislative offices. Abele’s 527 contribution was to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington D.C.-based group that wants to increase the number of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender public officials nationwide.

Many wealthy special interests create or contribute to 527 groups, which are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service rules that regulate them, because the groups can accept more money than candidates can legally accept, and from sources that cannot give directly to candidates. For example, state and federal campaign laws limit the amount that can directly be given to a candidate and prohibit direct corporate contributions to candidates. In Wisconsin, individual and political committees are limited to maximum contributions of $500 per Assembly candidate, $1,000 per state Senate candidate and $10,000 per candidate for a statewide office during a given election cycle. 527 groups may accept unlimited contributions from these wealthy donors, and spend as much money on as many races as they choose.