What might have been a quiet race for state-level political office in a region best known for dairy farms has been transformed into a battle more expensive than any Wisconsin residents have seen, with outside groups spending far more so far on nine recall races than they did on all state Senate and Assembly races in the last cycle combined.
A complaint alleging voter suppression also was filed Tuesday.
The imbroglio illustrates the emerging fallout of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling at the state level, where the amount of money that such groups can afford to spend can easily overwhelm candidates’ official messages, and where races undergo little of the disclosure and scrutiny that helps keep national campaigns honest.
The result in this state, which captured national attention during an impasse over collective bargaining for public employees, has been an election hijacked by moneyed outside groups, one out of the control of even the candidates.
“The amount being raised is staggering by Wisconsin standards,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “The candidates can’t get a word in edgewise and are bystanders in their own elections.”
In a realm where no candidate has ever spent more than $722,000, two candidates have spent more than $1 million, registered outside groups have spent $6.1 million as of the latest filing, and groups that don’t have to file disclosures have spent untold more, according to the watchdog group.
“There is a level of vulnerability at the state level that I’m not sure many people are aware of — how inexpensive it is to play politics and have a meaningful impact,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
With outside groups at the helm, the election has taken on an unprecedented tenor of negativity.
“They don’t appear on the ballot, so they’re not accountable in any way. If a candidate takes the low road, they risk a backlash at the polling place, but the interest groups aren’t on the ballot and so they’re not accountable,” Mr. McCabe said. “If you watch the ads most people would conclude none of the candidates have any redeeming qualities.”
The vitriol quickly descended into allegations of dirty tricks.
Voters, including pro-choice Democrats, received forms described as absentee ballot requests from both the pro-life Wisconsin Right to Life and, separately, from Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by oil heirs, the Koch brothers. The forms directed that applications for absentee ballots be submitted not to the state clerk, but to a P.O. box listed as the “Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center.”
“That is our post office box, I’m not going to say any more and we’re doing nothing illegal,” said Julaine K. Appling, director of the Wisconsin Family Council, a seemingly separate group, before hanging up.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party filed a complaint against Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin over the flier.
Daniel P. Tokaji, an elections analyst at Ohio State University, examined a copy of the WRTL version. “I can’t tell whether it was intentionally misleading or just incorrect info. It’s very troubling when an outside group is sending out materials that may cause votes to not be counted.”
WRTL declined to explain. “Everything we have done is above board and in accordance with Wisconsin election law and that’s my only statement and I won’t go more than that,” said Susan Armacost, Wisconsin Right to Life’s legislative director.
AFP-Wisconsin apologized that its flier indicated the form must be received by a date after the election. “Due to a mistake during printing, all applications were sent out with the August 11th date,” director Matt Seaholm said in a statement.
James Bopp, who represented WRTL in a case that won a ruling from a federal appeals court on Monday allowing it to collect unlimited donations, said there was nothing unusual about a group collecting absentee ballot requests.
“It’s quite common,” he said.
Supremely unexpected consequences
Mr. Bopp is no mere Wisconsin lawyer. He is an architect of the case that dismantled long-standing campaign finance regulations in the highest court in the land, leaving the states to stop enforcement or wait until a challenge appeared to carry the precedent down to each lower court.
“In Wisconsin, they said ‘Go to hell, we’re going to enforce them.’ “
He is also the man behind a new super-political action committee expressly designed to capture money from Republicans who already have given the maximum to the national party and candidates.
The newly formed Republican Super-PAC is closely aligned with the official party and allows donors to earmark funds for specific races. Mr. Bopp recently won a Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruling that allows these groups, which can sidestep campaign donation caps because they are independent of campaigns, to have candidates appear at fundraising events to solicit donations.
“It’s coordination on fundraising, but so what?” he said, adding that independence in expenditures — like the Wild West-style ads running in Wisconsin — is the important criteria.
While all eyes have been on the effect that corporate and union money will have on national races, what has gone overlooked is the proportionately larger role it could play in the statehouses.
“Ten thousand dollars can be the total amount that someone raises” in a state-level campaign, said Mr. Bender. “That’s chicken feed to someone who wants to mount a serious independent expenditure campaign. At the federal level, where groups are spending millions, that amount doesn’t do anything. If those same entities were to take a very concentrated look at states, invest in incumbents in a targeted way, that million or two million could have a tremendous result on the control of legislatures and could bring a tremendous tide.”
The libertarian line on campaign finance, which the Supreme Court espoused, has always frowned on monetary caps but praised disclosure, arguing that regulation drives money to underground channels and that knowledge about influence is the best defense.
But state disclosure laws are antiquated or nonexistent, and most states have adapted to the new contribution limits without updating disclosure systems.
Mr. McCabe said Wisconsin law, like in many other states, has allowed unrestricted expenditures for years, and the Citizens United ruling has simply caused groups to restructure with more freedom. “All they have to do is report their spending, not their donations.
“It really hasn’t produced that much additional spending, but ironically resulted in a precipitous decline in disclosure,” he said of Citizens United. “It’s had a perverse effect here — not what you’d expect if you read the ruling.”
• Luke Rosiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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