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$36 million spent on 2018 legislative elections reaches new high

The increased spending in last year's legislative races came after the GOP overhauled the state’s campaign finance law, including allowing increases in contribution limits.

MADISON — Total spending by candidates and groups in Wisconsin’s fall legislative contests hit a record $36 million in 2018, mirroring trends in statewide races.

An analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign finance, found spending in state Senate and Assembly races increased 27 percent from the $28 million spent in 2016 and was about double the $17 million spent in 2014.

The spending in legislative races accompanies a previously reported $93 million spent in the matchup between Democrat Tony Evers and Republican Scott Walker in the governor’s race.

Twenty-six outside groups, including the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee and conservative Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, spent a record $12 million on disclosed and undisclosed advocacy and advertising. Democratic groups spent about $6.7 million, while Republican groups dropped about $5.5 million.

Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Democracy Campaign, decried the increased spending as a trend that makes it more difficult for the average person to have a say in democracy.

“The political arena is one where the average person here in Wisconsin is reduced to the role of spectator, and sometimes a blindfolded spectator at that,” Rothschild said, lamenting the lack of transparency surrounding campaign contributions.

While increased campaign spending is no surprise, Rothschild emphasized it’s fairly unusual to see spending in legislative races increase over the prior cycle in a gubernatorial year, as was the case in 2018. He said loosened campaign finance regulations have freed up donors to spend lavishly in all types of races.

“’I’ve maxed out’ is an expression you don’t hear in Wisconsin anymore,” Rothschild said.

Legislature loosens donation rules

There is no limit to how much independent groups can spend on an election. The increased outside spending comes after a major rewrite of the state’s campaign finance system in 2015, which the Democracy Campaign has argued makes it easier for national groups to spend big in the state while keeping their donors secret.

Former Gov. Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature ushered in campaign finance changes that doubled contribution limits, allowed corporate contributions to parties and legislative fundraising committees, and loosened reporting requirements on independent expenditures.

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Republican advocates of the 2015 rewrite heralded it as providing more transparency and setting more concrete expectations for candidate fundraising. In some cases it was necessary to reflect state and federal Supreme Court rulings that deemed certain limits on campaign spending unconstitutional restraints on free speech.

Meanwhile, candidates themselves and the parties that support them spent a record $23.6 million on legislative races, with $14 million going toward Republicans and $9.5 million benefiting Democrats. Total spending by candidates and committees topped the 2016 figure — $19.1 million — by 23 percent and nearly doubled the $12.1 million spent in 2014.

The Democracy Campaign says the record spending levels are due in part to decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that candidates can coordinate with some outside groups.

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The outside groups making the heaviest contributions in 2018’s fall legislative races included the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which contributed $3.8 million and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which spent $2.1 million. Top spenders also included the Republican State Leadership Committee and the pro-school voucher group American Federation for Children, both of which contributed about $1 million.

A new player on the scene, the left-leaning High Ground Political Fund, spent the fifth most on legislative races, contributing about $700,000.

Rothschild noted direct contributions from labor unions declined precipitously in 2018, which he connected to the changes made under Act 10, the 2011 Republican-backed law that reduced the power of public-sector labor unions by, among other things, ending the practice of union dues being deducted directly from worker paychecks.

$1 million club

More than $1 million was spent in six legislative races, including five Senate races all won by Republicans:

  • The 17th Senate District race between Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Democrat Kriss Marion — $4.5 million.
  • The 1st Senate District race between then-Sen. Caleb Frostman, D-Sturgeon Bay, who had won a special election earlier in the year, and Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere — $4.2 million.
  • The 19th Senate District race between Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Democrat Lee Snodgrass — $2.3 million.
  • The 5th Senate District race between Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Democrat Julie Henszy — $2.2 million.
  • The 23rd Senate District race between Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, and Democrat Chris Kapsner — $1.1 million.

While total spending in 2018’s fall legislative races broke records, spending in individual races did not.

For example, Rothschild said nearly $10 million was spent in 2011 in the 8th Senate District, which Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, represents.

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