Political advertising is a practical necessity, but money spent on candidate bashing in Wisconsin promotes a level of fear and hate that takes root in lasting social trauma. About four dozen wealthy special interest groups doled out more than $60 million to mostly smear candidates during the 2018 fall legislative and statewide elections, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign preliminary review found.

The record-smashing amount spent by these outside electioneering groups totaled $61.4 million, including nearly $31.3 million by Republican outfits and $30.1 million by Democratic groups.

Compared to other mid-term election years that featured legislative and statewide races, spending by these groups in the 2018 fall elections was 68 percent higher than the $36.6 million spent in 2014 elections and more than three times the $18.9 million spent just eight years ago in the 2010 fall elections.

These electioneering groups fall into two categories – express advocacy groups and phony issue ad groups. Express advocacy groups, which make independent expenditures, must report their spending to the state. That’s because their broadcast and online advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities use the magic words “vote for” or “vote against” or their equivalents.

Phony issue ad groups, which can also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, do not have to report their spending because of federal court decisions and lax campaign finance laws. These groups smear or praise candidates but without explicitly telling viewers who to vote for or against.

Nine of these outside groups spent more than $1 million in the 2018 general elections. The top spenders, which plunked down most of their cash for TV ads in the races for governor and attorney general, were:

  • Democratic Governors Association (DGA) spent an estimated $13,450,000. The DGA, based in Washington, D.C., used a phony issue ad group called A Stronger Wisconsin to pepper the airwaves with nearly a dozen television ads from late August until Election Day that attacked incumbent GOP Governor Scott Walker, who lost to Democrat Tony Evers, on education, transportation, and health care;
  • Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent $10,939,632. The RGA, based in Washington, D.C., used two entities, Right Direction Wisconsin PAC and ACC Wisconsin PAC, to sponsor numerous television ads from September until Election Day that attacked Evers on teacher misconduct, and tax and spending issues;
  • Americans for Prosperity spent an estimated $8,320,000. The conservative group created by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch made reported independent expenditures and secret phony issue ads to sponsor TV ads and mailings that backed Walker and smeared Evers. The group also sponsored canvassing, mailings, and other activities to back Republicans in more than a dozen legislative races;
  • Greater Wisconsin Committee spent an estimated $7,000,000. This Democratic group, which is backed by union and rich ideological contributors, used its issue ad arm and corporation to mostly sponsor television and online advertising to support Evers and Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Kaul, who both won. Democrats backed by the group in at least eight legislative races lost;
  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) spent an estimated $5,300,000. The state’s largest business group, which backs Republicans for legislative and statewide office, used its phony issue ad arm and independent expenditure committee to mostly sponsor television ads to back Walker and incumbent GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel, who both lost. Republicans backed by the group in at least four legislative races won;
  • Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) spent $2,833,949. This Washington, D.C.-based group used a corporation called Wisconsin Freedom PAC to sponsor television and online advertising, robocalls and other activities to unsuccessfully back Schimel’s reelection bid;
  • Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) spent $2,180,854. This Washington, D.C.-based group also used a corporation called the WI People’s Lawyer Project to mostly sponsor television ads to support Kaul, who won;
  • Wisconsin League of Conversation Voters spent $1,062,410. The state group used an independent expenditure committee to sponsor television and online advertising to support Evers and Democratic candidates in two state Senate races.
  • Republican State Leadership Committee spent an estimated $1,030,000. This Virginia-based group supports Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature around the country. In Wisconsin, the group sponsored television, radio and online ads, and mailings in six legislative races and produced a video featuring Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

Founded in 1995, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group dedicated to clean government, where people matter more than money. The organization tracks money in politics, and advocates for campaign finance reform and other policies that will make real the promise of democracy.

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Katie Wheeler