State Candidates Continue to Increase Personal Spending and Cost of Campaigns
One Candidate Giveth . . . And Then Taketh Back
May 18, 1999
Madison - Candidates for state legislative office in the 1998 elections set an all-time record for contributions to their own campaigns, including one candidate who dumped more than $100,000 into his own campaign fund to scare off challengers, and then took back the money, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Republican Rep. Thomas Sykora of Chippewa Falls sunk $100,500 into his own campaign in late 1997. Sykora’s action brought total personal loans to his campaign to $141,520 since his 1996 campaign. At the time a Sykora aide said his boss would accept individual contributions, but not money from political action committees because he wanted to be beholden only to his 67th Assembly District constituents.
But Sykora later accepted thousand dollars from road builders, bankers and other special interests from outside of his district. In addition, he received $11,000 from other candidate campaigns and the Republican Party of Wisconsin (Chart). In all, Sykora raised about $37,000 and spent $21,370. After winning reelection last Nov. 3, Sykora’s campaign "repaid" him $112,000 on Nov. 20.
Records also show the campaign repaid Sykora $5,000 on July 17, a day before the campaign recorded a $5,000 contribution from the state GOP. Finally, the campaign paid him an additional $2,520 on Dec. 28.
"It’s completely outrageous. First he uses his wealth to preemptively scare off challengers. That’s evident because it sits in his account for months and he ends up spending much less than his campaign raises without his loan. Then, he uses interest money to run his campaign," said Gail Shea, WDC executive director.
If this isn’t an example of the need for campaign finance reforms, I don’t know what is," Shea said. "These large self-contributions and big war chests discourage qualified challengers and competitive races that give voters a choice."
An overall review of Elections Board data by the non-partisan WDC found that legislative candidates contributed $589,962 to their own campaigns in 1998 (Table), compared to $586,574 in 1996 and $404,753 in 1994. That is a 46 percent increase in just four years.
Large self-contributions by candidates are one reason why running for public office is so expensive and so prone to special interest influence.
"Some people may say, ‘What’s the big deal if a person decides to run a race on his or her dime?’ Well, the problem is that self contributions of tens of thousands of dollars discourage the average citizen from even thinking about running for office," Shea said.
"Prospective opponents must counter by going with hat in hand to special interests for money in order to run an effective campaign. If that person wins, and they more often do, it means they are beholden to the special interests whose money made it possible for them to run," said Shea.
Other key findings included:
- All but three of the 25 self-contributors of $5,000 or more were Republican candidates in 1998. In the previous two elections, there were about 20 candidates in each election who made self-contributions of $5,000 or more, and the party breakdown was about even.
- Overall, self contributions from Republican candidates totaled $435,942, compared to $146,465 for Democrats in the last election. Previously, Democratic and Republican self contributions were about even in 1996. In 1994, Democratic self contributions beat those of Republican candidates by more than $100,000.
"Even though there were more Republicans with large self-contributions last year, this is a wealthy candidate problem, not a partisan problem," Shea said. "It will be very curious to see how these large self-contributors vote on campaign finance reform plans that make it to the floor this session."
The WDC supports campaign finance reform that reduces special interest influence through smaller contribution limits, spending limits and an increase in public grants so that legislators can cast their votes on public policy based on the needs of voters, not special interests. Numerous legislative proposals have been introduced to stifle the growth of campaign spending and special interest influence. For the first time ever, the governor and other leading Republicans are publicly supporting the use of tax dollars to fund campaigns. Last month, a legislative budget-writing committee approved the governor’s plan to use $750,000 to fund future campaign finance reform. The Legislature will consider that proposal with the rest of the state budget in June.
"We find the atmosphere highly encouraging and commend lawmakers for appearing to be serious about passing reforms this session. We hope that they - Democrats and Republicans - take this opportunity to sit down and work together on a plan that both houses can pass," Shea said.
(Candidates with self-contributions of $5,000 or more in 1997-1998.)
Key: "I" means Incumbent; "C" means Challenger; "O" means Open Seat; and "S" means Special Election.
"W" means Winner; "L" means Loser in general election; "L-P" represents Loser in Primary election.
*Represents self contributions during Klusman’s Spring 1997 county executive race.