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Spending in 2018 gubernatorial, attorney general races reaches record levels

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Walker, Evers

State Superintendent Tony Evers, left, and then-Gov. Scott Walker squared off in two debates during the 2018 campaign. Evers won the election by a very thin 1.2 percentage point margin.

Last year’s match-up between former Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. Tony Evers came with a colossal $93 million price tag, topping the previous record by $11 million.

A review by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending, found Walker and outside groups put about $58 million into the former governor’s failed bid for a third term.

Evers and his outside backers spent about $35 million, illustrating that while spending has become essential to contemporary campaigns, the bigger spenders don’t always dictate the outcome.

“Getting the most money doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win, but it does give you a huge advantage,” Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild said. “The big money gets you at the starting gate. Having more money than anybody else gets you in the inside lane, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to trip coming out of the gate.”

The $93 million spent in the 2018 gubernatorial race by campaigns and outside groups was 14 percent higher than in the 2014 governor’s race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke, which saw a previous record of $82 million spent. The figures include spending on primary elections.

Rothschild says the increased spending levels in the gubernatorial race, which he expects to top $100 million in 2022, should come as no surprise given the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United prohibiting the government from restricting outside spending in elections.

The increased spending also comes after major changes to the state’s campaign finance system in 2015, which doubled individual donor spending limits to gubernatorial campaigns and generally made it easier for national groups to spend money in the state without disclosing their donors. Republicans have argued the changes provide more transparency and set better expectations for campaign fundraising.

Outside groups that represent ideological, business and labor interests made a significant mark on the governor’s race last year, spending about $41 million total in the governor’s contest.

Outside spending is generally divided into two types:

  • Independent expenditures, or spending on ads that is generally required to be disclosed to state and federal authorities because the ads specifically call for viewers to “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate, though there are exceptions to disclosure requirements.
  • So-called “issue ads,” which can praise or criticize candidates, but do not specifically encourage viewers to vote for or against a candidate. Groups that incur such spending are not required to disclose their donors.

Under Wisconsin’s new campaign finance system, if money spent by outside groups is no more than 50 percent of an independent expenditure group’s total campaign spending in a year, those groups don’t have to register or disclose their donors to the state Ethics Commission.

The 2015 campaign finance rewrite also made it clear that candidates may coordinate with issue advocacy groups and allowed political party committees to accept unlimited amounts as well as contribute unlimited amounts to candidates.

Outside Democratic groups outspent Evers with about $19 million compared with Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes spending about $11 million.

Walker and running mate Rebecca Kleefisch, on the other hand, raised more money themselves than Republican outside groups did. The Walker campaign logged $36 million spent during the 2018 campaign, while outside groups supporting them spent $22 million.

Rothschild said outside groups typically spend more than the candidates they support, so the fact Walker raised more than his backers is unusual.

Some of the top outside groups backing candidates in the 2018 campaign were the Democratic Governors Association, which spent about $14 million backing Evers; the Republican Governors Association, which spent $11 million backing Walker; Americans for Prosperity, which spent $8 million to benefit Walker; Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent about $2 million backing Evers; and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which put about $1 million into the race for Walker.

Record money in AG’s race

The race for attorney general between Republican Brad Schimel and Democrat Josh Kaul also set record levels of spending, with the campaigns and outside groups putting about $14 million into the race, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review.

Like Walker, Schimel benefited from higher spending levels than Kaul in the race, but still lost. Schimel and his four outside backers spent $7.4 million compared to the $6.6 million raised by Kaul and the eight groups that supported him.

Spending on the 2018 attorney general’s race was double that of the 2014 race and 68 percent higher than the previous record set in 2006, when Republican J.B. Van Hollen defeated Democrat Kathleen Falk, who won a contentious primary against incumbent Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. Figures for 2006 include spending on the primary.

Outside groups in the 2018 AG race spent about $9 million, significantly more than the roughly $5 million the candidates raised and spent themselves.

The outside groups with the largest contributions to the race were the Republican Attorneys General Association, which spent $2.8 million on TV and online advertising backing Schimel; the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which spent about $2.2 million on TV ads to support Kaul; Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which put in about $2 million for TV ads to back Schimel and attack Kaul; and the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which put in $1.7 million on TV and online advertising backing Kaul.


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