Smear Groups Set Spending Record In ’08 Legislative Races

Special interests pump unprecedented sums into Assembly contests

December 17, 2008

Madison - Special interests led by labor and conservative ideological groups spent an estimated $7.1 million on mostly negative advertising, mailings and telephone calls to harass voters and smear candidates in the 2008 legislative races, including more than $1 million on a single Assembly race, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

Spending by outside groups in the 2008 legislative races surpassed the previous record of $6.65 million set in the 2004 legislative races (see Bar Chart).

Chart: Total Spending by Outside Groups

Topping the list (Table) of outside group spending in the 2008 legislative elections was the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teacher’s union, which spent $2.1 million on television advertising to back Democratic Assembly candidates in five races. Three of the WEAC-backed candidates won their races.

WEAC was followed by the Coalition for America’s Families, a conservative alliance of businesses and nonprofit groups that opposes abortion, gun regulation and taxes. The coalition spent an estimated $1.3 million mostly on television ads to oppose Democratic legislative candidates. Coalition-backed Republican candidates won at least two legislative races.

The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee and All Children Matter, a Michigan-based group that generally supports Republican candidates, rounded out the top four outside electioneering groups.

The Greater Wisconsin Committee spent an estimated $1.3 million mostly on television advertising, including $83,497 by its regulated political action committee. At least two Democratic Assembly candidates backed by the committee won their races.

All Children Matter spent an estimated $900,000 and, like the Coalition for America’s Families, accused Democratic candidates of supporting expensive universal health care plans, tax increases and policies that would benefit illegal aliens at the expense of Wisconsin residents. All Children Matter sponsored negative television and radio advertisements and several mass mailings against Democratic candidates in at least 12 legislative races. Six candidates the group opposed lost their races. The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee claimed the group “spent well over $1 million” on mailings alone.

Notably absent from the list of high-spending electioneering groups is Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization. WDC estimates the group spent about $160,000 on mailings in four Senate races and 10 radio ads and three television ads in five Assembly races. WMC’s television ads aired on some cable stations, but a check of ad buys found no evidence the group purchased time on broadcast television stations.

Earlier this year, WMC said it intended to raise and spend at least $1 million on electioneering activities in the fall elections despite ridicule from the public and members of the business community about its electioneering activities in the 2007 and 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court races.

For more information about these groups and to hear their broadcast advertising and learn more about their other electioneering activities please visit the “Hijacking Campaign 2008” feature.

Overall, outside groups spent money in 93 of the 115 legislative races in November, and $500 or more in 49 of those races, including 42 in the Assembly and seven in the Senate. They spent most of their time and money on races in the Assembly because Democrats hoped to – and did – capture control for the first time since 1994. Democrats now hold a 52-46-1 majority.

Assembly races that saw the most interference by outside electioneering groups include:

The most expensive legislative race in state history was the 10th Senate District race in 2000 between Republican challenger Sheila Harsdorf and incumbent Democrat Alice Clausing. An estimated $3 million was spent, with outside groups accounting for more than $2 million of the total.

  • The open 47th District seat between Democrat Trish O’Neil and Republican Keith Ripp, who narrowly won. Ten special interest groups, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Coalition for America’s Families, the Greater Wisconsin Committee and All Children Matter, spent more than $1 million on negative broadcast ads and mailings – unprecedented for an Assembly race.

Groups like All Children Matter and Advancing Wisconsin joined WEAC in campaigning aggressively in the 43rd and 68th Assembly races, pushing outside spending into the $700,000 range in those contests.

  • The five Assembly races in which WEAC spent a total of $2.1 million against Republican candidates, including the 47th District O’Neil-Ripp race where it spent $513,132 on television ads. The four other races and amounts the teachers’ union spent were the 43rd District seat won by Democratic incumbent Kim Hixson, $539,660; the 68th District in which Democratic challenger Kristen Dexter beat Republican incumbent Terry Moulton, $406,322; the 96th District where incumbent Republican Lee Nerison beat Democratic challenger Dale Klemme, $364,382; and the 2nd District where Democratic challenger Ted Zigmunt defeated Republican incumbent Frank Lasee, $276,485.
  • The 80th District contest between Democrat John Waelti and incumbent Republican Brett Davis, who won, saw interference from nine outside electioneering groups including Advancing Wisconsin, All Children Matter and the Coalition for America’s Families;
  • Eight special interest groups, including the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Advancing Wisconsin, All Children Matter and the Club for Growth, got involved in the open 57th District race between Republican Jo Egelhoff and Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber, who won;
  • The 42nd District where Democratic challenger Fred Clark upset incumbent Republican Jake “Doc” Hines saw broadcast advertising and other activities by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Advancing Wisconsin, Club for Growth and the League of Conservation Voters;

In the Senate where Democrats maintained their 18-15 majority after the election, the most hotly contested race was the open 12th District seat where seven outside electioneering groups got involved including Building a Stronger Wisconsin, Keep Our North Strong and Advancing Wisconsin. Jim Holperin defeated Republican Tom Tiffany to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

The open 18th District Senate seat saw interference from at least four outside electioneering groups in support of the Democratic candidate but Republican Randy Hopper won narrowly.

In the 32nd Senate District where Republican incumbent Dan Kapanke won reelection three Republican and three Democratic groups engaged in electioneering activities, including Building a Stronger Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood.

In four other Senate races where third party groups – WMC, Advancing Wisconsin, Planned Parenthood, the Wisconsin Hospital Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation – got involved incumbents won reelection including 8th District Republican Alberta Darling, 10th District Republican Sheila Harsdorf, 22nd District Democrat Robert Wirch and 30th District Democrat Dave Hansen.

Table
Spending By Outside Electioneering Groups In The 2008 Legislative Races

Group Amount
Wisconsin Education Association Council $2,099,984
Coalition for America’s Families* $1,350,000
Greater Wisconsin Committee** $1,330,000
All Children Matter* $900,000
Building a Stronger Wisconsin* $400,000
Advancing Wisconsin $242,993
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce* $160,000
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters $106,254
Wisconsin Institute for Leadership* $100,000
Keep Our North Strong $65,255
Working Families PAC $64,753
Wisconsin Professional Police Association $57,875
Wisconsin Family Action* $45,000
Club for Growth** $43,500
AFT-Wisconsin (American Federation of Teachers)* $40,000
Planned Parenthood $29,864
Wisconsin Hospitals PAC $13,608
Volunteers for Agriculture PAC $12,970
Wisconsin Right to Life PAC $8,156
Winnebagoland Uniserv PAC $5,800
United Auto Workers Janesville-Madison PAC $4,544
Madison Teachers Inc. PAC $2,655
Fair Wisconsin PAC $1,876
Milwaukee Police Association PAC $855
TOTAL $7,085,942

* Phony issue ad group for which spending has been estimated.
** Includes estimated phony issue ad spending and reported political action committee spending.

Independent expenditure groups spent $2.81 million in the 2008 legislative elections. Such groups, like WEAC, are free to tell people who to vote for. But they must file reports with the state that detail who gives them money and how they spend it. They may only accept money from individuals, parties and political action committees and their donors must abide by contribution limits.

Phony issue ad groups spent nearly $4.3 million in the 2008 legislative elections. These groups, like the Coalition for America’s Families, are unregulated organizations that secretly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on outside electioneering activities because of a loophole in campaign finance laws. Issue ad groups are unregulated because their advertisements, mailings and other activities do not explicitly tell people who to vote for, although it is obvious from the messages which candidate is preferred. These groups may accept contributions from corporate or union treasuries – a large source of money that is illegal for candidates and independent expenditure groups to accept and a chief reason why special interests who engage in phony issue advertising also oppose campaign finance reform that requires them to disclose their contributions and expenditures like candidates and independent expenditure groups have to do.