Electioneering Groups Spent Nearly $9 Million in Legislative Elections

November 21, 2016

Ballot Box with Cash

Special interest electioneering groups doled out a record $8.9 million in the 2016 legislative elections. Democratic groups spent sharply more money, according to figures compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, even though Republicans added to their comfortable majorities in the Assembly and Senate.

The $8.9 million spent by Democratic and Republican ideological, business, and other special interest groups easily topped the previous record for outside group spending in non-recall legislative races, which was $7.1 million in the 2008 general elections.

In addition to the record for total amount spent by groups in regular, fall legislative races, special interests also spent a record amount in a single, non-recall legislative race. They doled out nearly $4 million in the hotly contested 18 th Senate District where Republican Dan Feyen defeated Democrat Mark Harris. Spending here was led by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), Greater Wisconsin Committee and Prosperity for Everyday People, with the latter two groups supporting Harris. The previous high-water mark for outside spending in a non-recall legislative race was an estimated $2.2 million in the 17 th Senate contest in 2014.

Groups that back Democrats spent an estimated $4.8 million while groups that back Republicans spent an estimated $4.1 million. Two Republican and two Democratic groups each spent more than $1 million. The vast majority of their spending was for broadcast and online advertising.

There were 115 legislative contests – all 99 Assembly seats and 16 Senate seats – but the vast majority of outside group spending targeted only three Senate races and a half-dozen Assembly seats. Republicans won all of those contests.

Topping the list of outside spenders at nearly $2.1 million was the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which supported Democratic candidates with disclosed independent expenditures and undisclosed phony issue ads.

Behind Greater Wisconsin was its longtime ideological counterpart, WMC, which spent more than $1.8 million to support Republican legislative candidates.

Prosperity for Everyday People, an issue ad group that supported Democrats in two races, and the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-school-voucher group that backs mostly GOP candidates, each spent more than $1 million.

In the 14 th Senate race, where incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon, beat Democrat Brian Smith, outside electioneering groups spent more than $2 million led by WMC, Greater Wisconsin, Prosperity for Everyday People, and the Wisconsin Freedom Alliance, which supports Democratic candidates.

Rounding out the top three most expensive Senate contests was the 12 th Senate race where incumbent Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany, of Hazelhurst, defeated Democrat Bryan Van Stippen. Outside special interests spent more than $525,000, led by the American Federation for Children and the Wisconsin First Political Fund, which supports Democrats. GOP groups spent about $352,100 and Democratic groups spent about $172,900.

Spending by outside groups in six Assembly races topped $100,000, including two contests at $500,000 or more.

In the 51st Assembly race, where incumbent Republican Todd Novak, of Dodgeville, defeated Democrat Jeff Wright, special interest groups spent more than $587,000, led by American Federation for Children and the Jobs First Coalition Political Fund, which also supports Republicans. These Republican groups outspent the Democratic ones by about $407,300 to about $179,900.

In the 85th Assembly District, where Republican Patrick Snyder defeated Democrat Mandy Wright for an open seat, outside special interest groups spent about $499,800, led by the American Federation for Children and the Jobs First Coalition. Republican groups outspent Democratic ones by about $374,200 to about $125,600.

Rounding out the top three most expensive Assembly races for outside electioneering spending was the 68 th Assembly District where groups spent an estimated $281,800, led by Greater Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood, which supports Democrats. Incumbent GOP Rep. Kathy Bernier, of Chippewa Falls, defeated Democrat Howard White.

The Democracy Campaign’s findings are based on reports filed by independent expenditure groups and preliminary estimates for secretive phony issue ad groups based largely on a review of actual television advertising purchases.

For more information about the electioneering groups and their activities and spending, visit the Democracy Campaign’s Hijacking Campaign 2016 feature.

The final, total cost of Wisconsin’s legislative elections won’t be known until next year. Outside special interest groups should have reported most of their spending by now, but the total cost of all the legislative races would also include spending by the candidates whose year-end reports are not due until mid-January.