MADISON — Jay Heck is clear on who’s to blame — the U.S. Supreme Court. The executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan group that backs campaign finance reform, says the huge and perhaps record-breaking sums now flowing into Wisconsin’s congressional races owe to the court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United.
“Obviously, spending in elections has increased in almost every election cycle,” Heck says. “It’s been the trend for many years, particularly after Citizens United,” which allowed outside special interests to pump unlimited amounts into the electoral process.
But wait: The rising sums Heck refers to are not just those coming from outside groups. He also means funds raised by candidates, who are operating under the same rules and limits in place before Citizens United.
“If you are a candidate, particularly an incumbent, the mindset is that outside groups will attack you,” Heck explains. “To defend yourself, you need to raise bigger amounts and faster than ever before.“
As of the Oct. 15 filing deadline, which tracks the current two-year election cycle through the end of September, candidates for Wisconsin’s one Senate and eight House seats collectively raised at least $43 million, an analysis using Federal Election Commission data shows. Most of this money, and likely a good deal more, will be spent before the Nov. 6 election.
In the previous cycle, 2009-10, the state’s congressional candidates spent $49 million.
The Senate race between Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Tommy Thompson leads the current fundraising bonanza. Though their FEC reports are not yet available, the numbers they released mean that Baldwin has raised at least $10.8 million through Sept. 30, compared to Thompson’s $4.7 million. And outlays by Thompson’s unsuccessful GOP rivals push the overall total to nearly $24 million.
Outside special interests have dumped another $23 million into the race through Oct. 15, as tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics. Add the two pots together, and spending on this one open seat nears the $50 million mark. So far. That tops the reigning 2010 Senate race, when the field led by Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican challenger Ron Johnson blew through $33 million, according to the FEC, augmented by about $5 million in outside spending.
Another record that could be shattered is for the most expensive House race in Wisconsin history. It now stands at $6 million, for the 2006 battle between Democrat Steve Kagen and Republican John Gard.
In District 7, Republican incumbent Sean Duffy, elected in 2010, and Democratic challenger Pat Kreitlow, a former state senator, have raised about $3.4 million, with Duffy having a 2-1 edge. Plus the race has drawn more than $3 million in outside spending.
Heck says this race is hot because for decades it was considered a safely Democratic seat, filled by David Obey. Democrats are now doing their best to turn out Duffy after a single term and “keep it from becoming a safe Republican seat.“
And in District 1, Republican incumbent Paul Ryan and Democratic challenger Rob Zerban have already spent more than $5 million, and have nearly another $5 million cash on hand, with Ryan accounting for $4 million in each category.
Ryan and Baldwin, notes Heck, “both are really aggressive about raising campaign funds,” aided by donor bases that extend far beyond Wisconsin.
And receipts are up across the board, Heck says, because “all incumbent members of the House are engaged in non-stop fundraising.” Even if their seat is safe for now, “in two years, who knows what will be on the horizon?“
Again, he blames Citizens United, which opened the cash spigot. He says one thing we haven’t yet seen are super PACs serving individual state candidates for federal office, like those for presidential contenders. Sighs Heck, “That’s the next logical progression, unless there’s some kind of reform.“
And what, really, are the chances of that?
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.