Wisconsin Elections Price Tag: $88.7 Million

By Eric Timmons

Candidates and political committees raised a staggering $88.7 million to spend on election campaigns in Wisconsin in 2020, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports.

That number will likely grow once final fundraising reports for the election are filed early next year. The total includes $16.3 million on U.S. House elections, $15.4 million on state assembly races and $9.7 million on elections for the state senate and comes from the National Institute on Money in Politics. Much of the money was blown on losing campaigns, largely by Democrats, and the effectiveness of much of the rest of the spending is highly debatable.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and pro-Democrat groups spent $23 million in Wisconsin this year, compared to $8.3 million by their Republican counterparts. Yet, although Joe Biden eked out a slim victory over President Trump in Wisconsin, down ballot results for Democrats showed little return on investment. The party lost two seats in the Senate and only gained two seats in the Assembly, leaving the Republicans firmly in control of both chambers.

Several of the most expensive races in the state were in the Coulee Region, including the $2.9 million spent by candidates and outside groups on the District 32 election, which was won by Democrat Brad Pfaff by a razor thin margin. The victory was a bright spot for Democrats and helped stop Republicans from gaining a veto-proof supermajority in the senate. The failure of Republicans to gain veto-proof majorities in both chambers means they won’t have full control over the redistricting process, which they successfully used to gerrymander electoral maps in 2011. New maps drawn in 2021 will now likely end up in state or federal court.

Pfaff had a major financial advantage in the race for the open District 32 seat, spending $1.3 million by mid-October, compared to the $354,000 spent by Republican Dan Kapanke. But big financial leads did not translate into wins elsewhere for Democrats. In District 30, Democrat Jonathon Hansen raised $1.2 million, the second highest for state senate race after Pfaff, and yet still lost to Republican Eric Wimberger, who raised $290,000. Similarly, Democrat Paul Piotrowski raised $716,000 in an attempt to knock out state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, in District 24. Testin raised only $106,000 and yet won by a convincing margin of 56% to 43%. In the state assembly race for District 51, Kriss Marion raised $538,000, and yet was beaten by the Republican incumbent, Todd Novak, who raised $282,000.

Democrats also raised large sums on races they ended up winning by convincing margins, suggesting the money could have been put to better use elsewhere. State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, for example, raised $539,000 and comfortably beat Kevin Hoyer, his Republican opponent, who raised just $66,000. By the end of the campaign, Doyle still had $223,000 cash on hand.

Democrats’ huge fundraising advantage over Republicans was likely fueled by the desire to beat Trump, and the critical status of Wisconsin in the election saw money flood into the state from around the country. Five of the top 10 donors to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in the first six months of this year were from California, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker also gave the Democratic Party of Wisconsin close to $2.5 million in the first six months of this year.

“It’s grotesque and anti-democratic, small d, to have multimillionaires from all over the country giving six-figure and seven-figure checks to influence who gets elected here in Wisconsin,” Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign wrote recently. “And I don’t care if those multimillionaires are Democratic or Republican. They are drowning out the voices of the regular citizens of Wisconsin, and that’s not what should be happening.”

At the federal level, the race between U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Republican Derrick Orden was one of the most expensive in Wisconsin this year. The two candidates plus outside groups plowed about $5.9 million into the campaign, which Kind won. The Democrat spent $3.9 million, and yet still finished with $936,000 cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Spending such vast sums on election campaigns is not only morally questionable. The money used for advertising, phone banking, mailers and canvassing also has a very limited effect on general election outcomes, according to a major study.

The study, by two University of California, Berkley professors, was released in 2017 and covered 49 field experiments conducted in real US election campaigns. It found that the impact of various persuasion techniques (calls, ads etc.) on voter preference in the two months before a general election was essentially zero.

Former Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature rewrote Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws in 2015, making it easier for rich donors to spend big on campaigns. The state used to have a de facto limit of $10,000 that any single individual could give to political parties, and a limit on what those parties could then give to the candidates, Rothschild noted, but the 2015 reforms removed those limits.

The old limits were still too high, Rothschild argued, and he would prefer a move toward partial public funding of campaigns in ways that amplify small dollar donations. For example, Seattle offers residents four $25 vouchers to use in each mayoral election, he wrote. In New York City, if a candidate accepts expenditure limits, small donors to that candidate can have donations up to $175 matched at a 6:1 ratio by public funds.

Sources for this story: Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and FollowTheMoney.org. Top image: Democrat Brad Pfaff talks to a local voter. Courtesy of Pfaff’s campaign. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

Show your support for local journalism that makes a difference by becoming a member of the La Crosse Independent for $5.75 a month. Click here for details.