In four critical Wisconsin state Senate races last year, groups making independent campaign expenditures actually spent more than the candidates themselves.
That jaw-dropping finding is from a report released this month by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a Montana-based nonprofit group. The report, “Independent Spending in Wisconsin, 2010,” is part of a state-by-state series analyzing the impact of Citizens United v. FEC, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which expanded the ability of corporations and unions to pour money into elections.
In Wisconsin’s statewide elections last fall, the report found, 29 interest groups made independent expenditures totaling $9.8 million, compared to $38.7 million raised directly by the candidates.
The top independent spender was the Republican Governors Association at $3.5 million, followed by the Greater Wisconsin Committee at $2.3 million, the Wisconsin Education Association Council at $1.6 million, and the Republican State Leadership Committee at $935,000. Collectively, these four heavy hitters accounted for 85 percent ($8.3 million) of the independent expenditures.
Eighty-nine percent of independent expenditures were on the governor’s race and five state Senate races, all but one of which were won by Republicans. The exception was Senate District 31, where Democratic incumbent Kathleen Vinehout of Alma barely survived a challenge from Republican Ed Thompson. There, independent expenditures totaled $689,902, compared to just $397,064 raised by the candidates.
Chart: Where independent groups outspent candidates
Hover over the bars to see which candidates won or lost.
An independent expenditure, as it sounds, is spending for or against a given candidate done independent of that candidate’s campaign. There are no limits on how much can be spent. But Wisconsin and some other states once barred corporations from making independent expenditures. The Citizens United decision, rendered in January 2010, changed that.
Now unions and corporations — besides setting up political action committees so their members or employees can help sway elections — can tap directly into their treasuries for independent expenditures. These groups must report their spending, but in many cases are not required to reveal where it comes from.
Besides independent expenditures, there is a whole other category of special-interest spending — so-called issue ads, which stop (often just barely) short of urging a vote for or against a given candidate.
Because there is no mandatory disclosure, coming up with spending estimates is a painstaking process that involves collecting ad sales data from the radio and TV stations. That’s what the nonpartisan watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign does, to give a more complete picture of special interest spending. The group estimated that $9 million was spent on issue ads in 2010, driving the special-interest total to $19 million.
Mike McCabe, the Democracy Campaign’s executive director, says the biggest effect of Citizens United has not been more spending but less disclosure. Indeed, the group found that only $3.1 million of the nearly $10 million in independent expenditures last year came from individuals and committees identified in state reports.
But while independent expenditures have seen only a slight overall increase, says McCabe, “there’s been an explosion in the issue-ad category.” In this summer’s nine Senate recall elections, his group calculated that $34.5 million was spent by special interests, including $18.8 million on issue ads — amounts that dwarfed the $8 million spent by candidates themselves.
Citizens United did not change the rules for issue ads, which were unregulated beforehand, as they are now. McCabe nonetheless blames this decision for the issue ad spending boom, saying it had a “psychological impact” that opened the floodgates of union and corporate campaign spending.
While these groups feel licensed to spend ever greater amounts, many prefer to do so on issue ads, which achieve the same purpose and require no disclosure from them at all.
Says McCabe, “They may want people to believe they only spent $1 million when they really spent $5 million.”