The Nov. 6 election was as exhausting as it was astonishing, especially when viewed from the new Ground Zero for American elections — the intersection of Money and Politics.
Records were broken, along with some hearts. Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state was reaffirmed in thousands of 30-second increments. The money flowed fast and furious.
Yet all this spending brought little change. Wisconsin again voted Democratic in a presidential sweepstakes won by Democrat Barack Obama (with an assist from Bruce Springsteen). The state elected a Democratic U.S. Senator to replace one who retired, and ended up with the same ratio of five Republicans and three Democrats in the House.
Republicans retained the state Assembly and regained the Senate, following a June recall election that left Gov. Scott Walker in power. This restores the political balance in place before an estimated $137 million was spent on the state’s 15 recall elections over the past two years. Dems controlled the Senate for just a few months, when the Legislature was not in session.
Still, it was an election that delivered sound and fury like none other the state has ever seen.
According to the National Journal, Wisconsin was hit with $45 million in presidential TV ads, about two-thirds backing Mitt Romney. That compares to a mere $23.6 million spent here in the 2008 presidential race, as reported by CNN.
Wisconsin saw its costliest U.S. Senate race ever, topping the $70 million mark. When the prior record was set, way back in 2010, most of the $38 million spent came from the candidates, Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican Ron Johnson. This time around, outside groups dumped $45 million into the race, on top of about $28 million spent by candidates through Oct. 17.
Around 87 percent of this outside money went to oppose Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the victor, or Republican Tommy Thompson, split almost evenly between them. About a third flowed from super PACs, “independent” entities which can accept unlimited sums; another third was from 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations, which don’t have to disclose who gives them money.
Meanwhile, the District 7 congressional race between Republican incumbent Sean Duffy and Democratic challenger Pat Kreitlow drew $4.7 million in outside cash. That tops the $3.8 million spent in the same district in 2010, when Duffy defeated Democrat Julie Lassa.
And the candidates for District 1, Republican incumbent Paul Ryan and Democratic challenger Rob Zerban, reported spending $6.5 million through Oct. 17, with Ryan accounting for $5 million. That breaks the record for candidate spending in a Wisconsin congressional race set in 2006, when Democrat Steve Kagen and Republican John Gard spent $6 million vying for an open seat.
Both Duffy and Ryan held onto their seats, though Ryan would have preferred not to need his. (Had he become vice president, a special election would have been held.)
In the state Legislature, $8 million was spent by various candidates through Oct. 22; this does not include spending by outside groups.
Based on unofficial results with a few close races, the Republicans are poised to keep a commanding lead in the state Assembly, 60 to 39 seats. (It had been 59-39 with one independent.) And they’ve reclaimed the state Senate 17-15, pending a December special election in a safely Republican seat that will likely extend that advantage to 18-15.
In the northern Wisconsin Senate district formerly held by Democrat Jim Holperin, who won a hotly contested recall race in 2011 only to decide against seeking re-election, Republican Tom Tiffany won easily. Through Oct. 22, Tiffany outspent Democrat Susan Sommer $174,268 to $29,788.
And in the state Senate district that includes Oshkosh, one of three the Dems clinched in the recalls, Republican Rick Gudex bumped off Democrat Jessica King. Gudex outspent King $239,269 to $143,136, through Oct. 22.
Money may have made the difference in these elections. It also made a lot of noise, still ringing in our ears.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
It may seem that “Big Money” from outside Wisconsin had less effect than feared, but I believe that was only due to the countering effect of a massive increase in local donations and local grassroots volunteer efforts across the state.
The election results shouldn’t lull anyone into believing the outside money was irrelevant.
In my community, I’ve sensed a high level of anxiety and desperation surrounding elections in recent years. It feels as if Wisconsin is under siege, with all the outside money flowing in and trying to take over our state.
This feeling of “attack” creates strong internal and external pressure to drop everything and get involved with community-based election campaign committees, to counter the threat.
Many Wisconsinites seem to be putting their private lives on hold to donate many weeks or even months of their time to electioneering … working as local foot soldiers waging a “holy war” in defense of their principles, on both sides of the aisle.
The pressure to donate more and more money is also straining local household budgets.
(What is the local economic impact when millions of dollars of local disposable income is diverted each year away from local purchases of consumer goods and services, just to pay for exploding campaign costs? The news media, printers, and U.S. Post Office may enjoy windfall profits, but do those profits result in money circulating locally where ordinary people and small businesses can benefit? Has anyone studied this?)
Such huge volunteer sacrifices cannot be sustained and recreated for every election cycle. Even the most dedicated volunteers will burn out eventually, demoralized as elections get tougher and losses accumulate.
I’m afraid that in coming election cycles volunteers will become more scarce, time-limited, and stingy with donations. Local grassroots campaigns will shrink.
When this occurs, it will leave campaigns at the mercy of “Big Money” and election results will be more clearly skewed.
This week’s election results should not be interpreted as reassurance that the massive influx of outside money in recent years has been ineffective or harmless, or that it should be allowed to continue.
Ordinary citizens should NOT have to sacrifice their lives and happiness like this, year after year, just to defend the integrity of elections against a newly created onslaught of outside money.
The “Citizens United” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court MUST be overturned, and Congress MUST put severe limits on private money influence over elections.
These corrections need to happen SOON, while citizens are still energetic and engaged. It will be impossible to push through any changes once the inevitable exhaustion and burn-out sets in.
We’ll never have truly representative or civilized elections until those 2 changes are made. Our democracy is being destroyed.
It’s $6B through the economy. Not as valuable as $6B in retail spending, but ad agencies, media companies and voice talent spent some on retail. Weak economy loves those outside ads. Shocked Obama stimulus didn’t think to include them
Timbo – $6B is a LOT. It’s a shame so much of it was spent on repetitive and annoying advertising and robocalls. Very little that reached our home gave useful facts we could rely on when voting. Many claims were questionable or untrue.
I’m sure some campaign advertising products were created and produced by specialists in other parts of the country. Also, national campaign experts and lawyers would have been hired as out-of-state consultants. Wisconsin wouldn’t have seen all of that $6B.
I don’t know where media companies spend all their profits, but a portion probably left Wisconsin immediately, skimmed from the top by executives and shareholders.
Increased campaign donations from citizens undoubtedly drained a lot of money away from Wisconsin’s smaller cities and rural areas, and most of those dollars would never came back to be spent in those local economies. A few big cities might see a net economic gain, but the rest of the state would lose money.
Just imagine what Wisconsin could do with an “extra” $6 billion windfall spent on economic infrastructure, technical school training, small business assistance, marketing of Wisconsin products, day care improvements, preventive health care initiatives, etc.
Imagine how Wisconsin could have used the massive amount of campaign TIME donated by thousands of citizens over this past year. A significant chunk of Wisconsin’s volunteer energy, creativity and productivity was sucked away and consumed by excessive campaigning.
Imagine how much happier our state would be if we didn’t have so much outside money fanning the flames of political conflict here. Our 2-Party system has always polarized opinions somewhat, but now our entire voting population seems anxious, angry or frustrated. Recent campaigns have been so painful and divisive that many relationships among families, friends and co-workers have been strained or broken … casualties of a “battleground state.”
And now, many losing volunteers are terrified, morbid and depressed [if they believed their own campaign propaganda), and even winning volunteers are exhausted and need time to recover.
To the extent that increased campaign spending and outside money provoked increases in these problems … and the provocation seemed pretty severe to me … the money DID bring a significant and overwhelmingly-negative change to Wisconsin.
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