Political campaigns

Record spending by outside groups on Wisconsin political campaigns

Outside groups trying to influence the outcome of Wisconsin’s election spent a record $52 million ahead of next week’s vote.

That’s a 43% increase from the previous year’s record spending in 2018. And there are still eight days left until the end of the campaign, so the money keeps pouring in.

“This will shatter the previous record by at least 50%,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign finance watchdog group.

According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, groups promoting Republican candidates have spent nearly $40 million this year, more than three times as much as groups supporting Democratic candidates.

These expenses are focused solely on state races, including both statewide offices like the governor and attorney general and for the Legislative Assembly. That does not include spending for the Senate race between incumbent U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes. This does not include spending on US House campaigns.

Nor does it include several million dollars spent on “theme ads” that target candidates without explicitly telling viewers whom to vote for or against.

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Rothschild said the lack of limits on outside spending means wealthy non-Wisconsin people have outsized influence over state policy.

“With all of this outside spending by outside groups, the voices of ordinary Wisconsinites are being drowned out,” he said. “We have individuals across the country who can donate unlimited amounts of money to these outside groups and then these outside groups come to Wisconsin and tell us who to vote for or who not to vote for with all these sordid negative ads that have been splashing across our screens for months now.”

The Democracy Campaign says 12 groups have spent more than $1 million each on campaigns. The top five spenders focused on promoting Republican candidates.

The biggest spender was Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, which spent $9.29 million on Monday. Run by the Republican Governors Association, the PAC spent the money on broadcast and digital ads focused on the race between Governor Tony Evers and Republican businessman Tim Michels. The ads attacked Evers over tax and criminal issues.

Americans for Prosperity — the right-wing group created by brothers David and Charles Koch — spent $6.36 million on television and digital advertising, canvassing and direct mail to support Michels and other GOP candidates in the races for the attorney general and the state legislature.

Only two groups promoting Democratic candidates — A Better Wisconsin Together and the Wisconsin Conservation Voters Independent Expenditure Committee — were in the top 10 among such groups spending in the state. A Better Wisconsin Together spent $3.4 million, including on TV ads criticizing Michels’ stance on abortion access. Wisconsin Conservation Voters spent $3.8 million, often on ads praising or criticizing candidates’ positions on environmental issues.