MADISON – Spending in Wisconsin’s fall legislative races skyrocketed in 2020 — nearly doubling the amount of money in races four years ago.
The $54 million spent by candidates and special interest groups on seats in the state Legislature paid for campaigns involving some of the most serious issues facing the state in generations.
In some of the closest races, Democrats accused Republicans who control both legislative houses of abdicating their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic by refusing to meet for most of the year. And Republicans tied Democratic candidates to violent riots in Madison and Kenosha that transpired in the wake of police shootings of Black men.
Political campaigning rarely avoids mudslinging, but 2020 felt especially toxic to some candidates, in part because of the volume of literature seeking to portray candidates in a negative light.
In one race, Democratic state Rep. Deb Andraca, who defeated a Republican incumbent in the northeast Milwaukee suburbs, said she unsuccessfully tried to file a restraining order against a man with a criminal record who said he wanted her to be shot to death.
Andraca’s campaign was focused on preventing gun violence and gun safety and despite being a concealed carry permit holder, she said some ads framed her as someone who wants to confiscate guns.
“A message came through that was kind of above and beyond. It said, you blanking liberal you want to take our guns away … it said I hope you get shot by your Antifa thugs,” Andraca said. “As a candidate you expect people to send out nasty things … but this was next level and so I filed a restraining order.”
Spending also has grown dramatically since 2015 after Republican lawmakers increased contribution limits from individuals and political action committees to candidates, and eliminated limits on how much individuals may contribute to political parties, PACs and legislative campaign committees, among other changes.
Before 2015, spending in legislative races never topped $20 million. In 2016, spending hit $28.1 million and $35.8 million in 2018. The level of spending in 2020 is 50% higher than in races two years ago.
Democratic legislative candidates and the groups that supported them spent $29.7 million and Republican candidates and the groups that backed them spent more than $24.2 million, according to an analysis by the liberal-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign of campaign finance records, fundraising reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and television ad buys.
Barry Burden, director of UW-Madison’s Elections Research Center, said the fall spending levels appears to be a case of politics in Wisconsin “moving in line with some surprising national trends.”
He said both the presidential campaigns and congressional campaigns around the country more than doubled their spending from 2016, and the jump may be the biggest step increase ever between two consecutive presidential election cycles.
Burden said out-of-state donations appear to be picking up, too, which could factor into Wisconsin’s spending increase.
“People from Wisconsin were surely giving to the candidates running in the two Georgia Senate races, and people from California were almost certainly giving to Wisconsin campaigns,” he said.
The Trump effect
Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said former President Donald Trump was more influential in spending levels in Wisconsin than the changes in campaign finance law.
“Trump shocked the country into action for and against,” he said. “This was a moment when anyone who pledges allegiance to the flag felt called to duty.”
Wikler said he believes spending levels still would have set records in 2020 without the 2015 changes to contribution limits because of the significant increase in small donations for Democrats.
Burden said the biggest part of the increase was small donations, which could be a result of financial strain during the pandemic.
“It’s surprising that candidates were so successful at raising money in a year when so many people were suffering lost income and other financial stresses,” Burden said. “It could be that pandemic actually fostered these small donations. Many people were spending more time at home, paying more attention to politics, and not spending disposable income on activities such as dining out, going to concerts and taking vacations.”
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement the spending levels are a result of Republicans running superior legislative campaigns, requiring Democrats to spend more.
“That meant Democrats had to spend record amounts of money just to prevent losing even more seats. Despite being outspent, Republicans still won more than 60% of legislative races statewide,” Jefferson said.
The most money spent in a single race was $3.3 million in the 32nd Senate District, a seat won by former Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff to represent the La Crosse area in western Wisconsin.
Pfaff, a Democrat from Onalaska, spent more than his Republican challenger, Dan Kapanke, who owns a summer league baseball team. Together, the candidates spent $2.1 million and outside groups spent $1.2 million.
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling’s re-election race drew the second-highest spending, at $3.2 million. Darling’s Democratic challenger, Neal Plotkin of Glendale, spent more than Darling, but Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent $525,000 in television ads on behalf of Darling to help her win re-election.
In both of the highest spending races, it was WMC, the state’s chamber of commerce, and the liberal A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund that spent heavily on behalf of candidates.