The Republican Party of Wisconsin spent vastly beyond its means and failed to properly account for its expenditures in its unsuccessful effort to re-elect former Gov. Scott Walker, according to an internal party assessment.
The state GOP’s postmortem following its losses in statewide races in 2018 also shows the party relied on financing some of its campaign expenditures, took for granted the money it raised and was “recklessly reliant” on political consultants, who raked in more than $500,000.
The party provided the report to the Wisconsin State Journal less than a week before members convene in Oshkosh for their annual convention, where they plan to internalize lessons learned from 2018 in preparation for President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election battle.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, previously told the Wisconsin State Journal the party in 2018 lost touch with its grassroots volunteers and activists, took a top-down approach and was far too reliant on outside consultants and elaborate advertising. The report does not name the consultants.
Johnson said the party needs to re-energize the grassroots and county organizations, fine-tune advertising and create a stronger party infrastructure candidates can rely on.
The party’s internal assessment reflects those themes but focuses more on the party’s financial mismanagement than Johnson mentioned.
“Over time, the Republican Party of Wisconsin drifted from its roots as a grassroots organization and became a top-down bureaucracy, disconnected from local activists, recklessly reliant on outside consultants and took for granted money that was raised to keep the Party functioning properly,” the report says.
It adds that the party contracted consultants for basic operational responsibilities that it would have handled in-house in “leaner” times, and that party officials provided little oversight of the contracts. State campaign finance reports documenting the party’s spending between Sept. 1 and Oct. 22 show it dished out at least $255,206 in consulting fees.
The report says the party’s reliance on high-cost consultants, coupled with its sizable effort to re-elect Walker, drove the party into debt. For example, the party in October 2018 transferred $4 million to Walker’s campaign while making “significant other expenditures” on Walker’s behalf.
Republican Party spokesman Charles Nichols said in an email the party at the end of 2018 accrued a debt of more than $350,000, but that it hopes to have the debt paid off by the end of the year. Some portion of a $500,000 donation to the party in April from Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks may help the party reach that goal.
The party had about $142,000 in debt at the end of March, according to federal campaign finance filings.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the state party’s problems with debt based off a leaked version of an earlier draft of the report. That report, according to the newspaper, showed the party went so far in debt it missed payments to insurers and accrued almost $600 a month in interest on a maxed-out credit card.
The more recent version of the report the Republican Party provided to the State Journal does not include details of the party’s missed payments.
Instead, the version says that while “the party was accruing debt by financing campaign expenditures, it was also accruing debt by not paying its own bills.”
The report says there was an unsatisfactory effort to inform party leadership about party debt, and that “questions about finances were deflected by pointing to a positive cash balance” the party held.
The report says the party’s overspending and reliance on consultants cannot be sustained given Walker’s departure, as his gubernatorial political operation had an outsize responsibility in party operations and fundraising. The report says it does not seek to place blame on anyone specifically for the party’s financial mismanagement, although the report makes several references to how “management of RPW was essentially outsourced to the governor’s campaign operation.”
The party’s internal report says the party has already taken action by letting go of high-cost consultants. It underscores the need moving forward to have more party functions done in-house, to restore accountability and to implement financial controls.
The party’s report outlines a strategy for Trump’s re-election that focuses on improving outreach to minorities and women, improved communication and training, and a focus on swing voters Republicans lost in 2018.
The party’s losses in 2018, it says, can be partially attributed to erosion of Republican support in suburban areas, such as those in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, or the so-called “WOW” counties.
The party also will seek to improve its strategy for communications and training. Seventy percent of county leaders, for example, said the party did not provide them with the necessary tools and training. The party’s volunteers also said party staff were sometimes “unhelpful,” “unresponsive” and even “rude.”