After state law change, campaign cash doubled in 2018 race for Wisconsin state Senate seat between incumbent state Sen. Roger Roth and Democratic challenger Lee Snodgrass.
By Howard Hardee, THE BADGER PROJECT
Campaign donations surpassed $1 million in the 2018 race for state Sen. Roger Roth’s seat, doubling those raised in the previous election in 2014, an investigation by The Badger Project found.
Following a statewide pattern, Wisconsin’s 19th State Senate District was flooded by a wave of campaign cash for the election last fall. Swing districts across the state saw huge increases in campaign contributions in this election compared with previous races.
The Republican incumbent Roth, a first lieutenant in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and Iraq War veteran from Appleton, won with about 53 percent of the vote. He defeated Democratic challenger Lee Snodgrass, a first-time candidate who also lives in Appleton and serves as director of communication for Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes. According to campaign finance records, Roth and Snodgrass raised about $550,000 and $450,000, respectively, for a combined total of about $1 million — more than twice the amount raised in the race for the seat in 2014. That translates to more political advertising on TV screens, computer monitors and in mailboxes.
The annual salary of Wisconsin state senators is $52,999.
Major fundraising efforts have become the norm since the Republican-controlled legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker loosened campaign finance rules in 2015. Those changes doubled the limits on direct donations from an individual person to a candidate, and effectively removed all limits on donations from individuals to political parties, and from parties to candidates.
Heading into the election, state Democrats hoped to regain the Senate majority by flipping at least three seats. Both sides anticipated a blue wave of support, and Roth received about 57 percent of the vote in 2014, when the winners of many state Senate races took 60 percent or more.
“The 19th District was one of those seats the Democrats thought they could turn,” said James Simmons, a professor of political science at UW-Oshkosh. “In terms of the money pouring in, it’s very selective. Both political parties and these outside groups focus on particular campaigns they think they can win.”
Covering portions of Outagamie and Winnebago counties, the 19th State Senate District includes rural farmland and urban areas like Neenah, Menasha and parts of Appleton. Winnebago County was carried by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, making it one of the “pivot counties” throughout the country identified by Ballotpedia as having a potentially outsized impact on the 2020 election.
“Part of it is the influence of big money,” Simmons said of the increased campaign donations in the race, “but another part is that the Democrats especially have raised large sums of money from donors who give small amounts. Both parties have become much more effective at fundraising. Given how polarized the nation has become, organizations and individuals have become more willing to spend money attempting to elect favorable candidates.”
Roth, the Senate president, got more than $100,000 from the campaign committees of the Wisconsin GOP. He also had strong support from businesses, collecting the maximum $2,000 donation from the political action committees of Alliant Energy, Charter Communications, General Electric and Marathon Petroleum, among many others.
Snodgrass received even more direct donations from her party’s campaign committees, at more than $200,000. She received the maximum donation from several labor unions, as well as from the national liberal megadonor and presidential candidate Tom Steyer, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Lynde Uihlein, a liberal Wisconsin megadonor and one of the heirs to the Schlitz beer fortune.
Independent groups who are not allowed to coordinate with candidates spent nearly $1.4 million in this race on things like TV ads, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based group that tracks campaign spending. The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a liberal organization, spent an estimated $800,000 to support Snodgrass and attack Roth. The Wisconsin Realtors Association spent more than $200,000 to support Roth, according to that analysis.
Snodgrass credited her fundraising success to knocking on many doors in her district and devoting much of her evening hours to calling constituents.
“I was relentless for seven months,” Snodgrass said. “I went to work in the morning, spent my lunch hours offsite doing campaign work, took vacation time and unpaid time off. I was rarely in bed before midnight. I think it paid off in how I was able to close that margin from the previous race.”
The last time Roth came up for re-election in 2014, Roth defeated Penny Bernard Schaber by a margin of 57 to 43 percent.
Roth did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
As a first-time candidate, Snodgrass was facing an uphill battle against a firmly entrenched GOP incumbent in a Republican-leaning district, she said, so she knew she would have to win independent and Republican voters. Snodgrass said she didn’t sponsor negative attack ads against Roth, choosing rather to focus on introducing herself to voters and “contrasting messages” that highlighted her own views on health care and wetland management versus Roth’s.
“If you’re a candidate who nobody knows, simply going positive about yourself is not going to move the needle,” she said. “You have to point out how you’re better than your opponent. You point out bills they wrote and votes they took that negatively impact people. …
“As long as they were sticking to the facts, there were no personal attacks and there was no speculation, I was comfortable,” she continued.
After her months-long push for election, Snodgrass said that “running for office is one of the hardest things you can do,” but she would “definitely consider” doing it again in 2020 and beyond.
After her interview with The Badger Project but before the publishing of this story, Snodgrass announced she would run for a local seat for state Assembly in 2020. State Rep. Amanda Stuck (D-Appleton) is vacating it to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay).
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.