Wisconsin Recall: Bucking the Super-PAC Trend

With voters in the Badger State set to determine the fate of Gov. Scott Walker, Ben Jacobs reports on how his Democratic challenger is relying on third-party fundraising.

Jeffrey Phelps / AP Photo

In the two years since the Supreme Court overturned caps on corporate and union political contributions, Republican candidates have received a disproportionate amount of cash from murky, outside groups, while Democrats have leaned more heavily on individual donations. Yet the opposite has been true in Wisconsin, where voters on Tuesday are preparing to go to the polls in a recall election that will determine the fate of controversial Gov. Scott Walker.

In the Badger State, Democratic gubernatorial challenger Tom Barrett is the one primarily relying on third-party efforts. Since he entered the fray in late March, the Milwaukee mayor has raised a mere $4 million for his campaign and is depending on outside groups backed by the labor movement to carry him to victory. By contrast, Scott Walker, the incumbent governor, has taken advantage of an arcane loophole in Wisconsin campaign-finance law, which has allowed him to take in contributions of more than $500,000 apiece from well-heeled supporters and build up a massive war chest of more than $30 million since he took office last year.

One reason for this switch: the loophole allowing unlimited donations benefits only candidates facing possible recall efforts, in this case, Walker. The law was passed in 1987 (and supported by then-state representative Barrett) to level the playing field for incumbents facing recall challenges, who would be otherwise handicapped by Wisconsin’s strict campaign-finance laws. Walker took this small loophole, designed to even the odds when state and local candidates faced an unexpected election, and used it to rake in tens of millions of dollars. Yet this loophole hasn’t necessarily increased the amount of money Walker has received to beat back the recall effort; rather it seems that large donations from millionaires and billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, which normally would have been directed to super PACs and third-party groups, have instead gone directly into the campaign’s coffers.

The second reason for this development is that most of the Democratic Party’s efforts to unseat Walker were designed to function without a candidate, let alone Barrett. These efforts began more than a year ago when Walker used the nuclear option to force his controversial collective-bargaining reforms through the state legislature. The uproar that ensued soon led to the creation of We Are Wisconsin, a partnership of labor and various progressive groups, which has served as a central hub coordinating anti-Walker efforts. We Are Wisconsin took the lead in organizing the first round of recalls last year, when Democrats managed to oust two Republican state senators. No one challenged Walker at the time because Wisconsin law requires an elected official be in office for a year before a recall effort can be launched (Walker was elected in 2010). This meant the effort to gather signatures for a recall had to wait until early January.

Creating a war chest, however, didn’t have to wait, but the hiatus created a situation in which recall supporters funneled funds to build up a campaign before a candidate had emerged. Thus, as the election approaches, the Barrett campaign doesn’t really do voter contact or even its own opposition research; it mainly schedules candidate appearances and puts out some television ads and mailers. The rest of the political burden has fallen on groups like We Are Wisconsin, which has a very narrow base for fundraising.

Over the past month, We Are Wisconsin has raised more than $5.5 million. Of that total, the group has received three donations from individuals totaling $720. The rest of its funds came almost exclusively from organized labor. This included nearly $2 million from the AFSCME, the public-employees union, and $1.25 million from the AFL-CIO, along with other six-figure gifts from unions such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Teamsters.

This money was then sent back out to several unions and Democracy for America, the liberal advocacy group formed from the ashes of Howard Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, to pay the salaries of campaign staff working to get out the vote. This included well over $700,000 that went directly back to AFSCME in the form of wages. We Are Wisconsin did not just spend its money on staff. More than $2 million went to another liberal independent expenditure group, the Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund, to purchase anti-Walker advertisements on television and radio.

These extensive efforts on behalf of Barrett shouldn’t minimize the severe fundraising disadvantage he’s facing. It’s clear that Barrett and his allies will be outfinanced by a margin of at least 3–1. Indeed, in an interview with The Daily Beast, one Wisconsin political operative marveled at the scope of Walker’s spending, noting that the Republican has even been buying television time in the Twin Cities, a television market in which 90 percent of viewers vote in Minnesota. This is a real luxury in a very competitive race. Barrett may not win what is expected to be a close contest on Tuesday. But without labor’s extensive independent expenditures, he wouldn’t stand a chance.