Out-of-state millionaires and billionaires are pouring money into the two major Wisconsin political parties, but Democrats are winning this time.
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
The ex-wife of a Silicon Valley super-investor. The governor of Illinois. George Soros.
Huge donations from outside the state are becoming the norm in Wisconsin, where legal changes have allowed for ever-increasing political donations in recent years.
Following the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case, McCutcheon vs. F.E.C., that deemed Wisconsin’s annual $10,000 limit on total political donations unconstitutional, the Republican-controlled legislature went even further in loosening campaign finance laws, including doubling the limit on direct donations to political candidates.
This year, liberals flooded America’s Dairyland with cash. More than 80% of the top 50 donors to state political parties gave to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
“Maybe the Republicans are going to look back at their change of the campaign finance law in 2015 and say ‘this wasn’t such a good idea after all,’” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization which tracks campaign spending in the state.
Neither party responded to email requests for comment.
Karla Jurvetson, a California psychiatrist who is divorced from a hyper-successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, gave the state Democratic Party nearly $3 million, according to campaign finance records. J. B. Pritzker, the billionaire governor of Illinois and a Democrat, wrote one check to the party for nearly $2.5 million this year. And George Soros, one of the most successful Wall Street investors ever, gave the Wisconsin Dems nearly $500,000.
Diane Hendricks, the Beloit-area “richest self-made woman in the world,” according to Forbes, regularly gives huge sums to Wisconsin Republicans. This year, the billionaire head of ABC Supply, a roofing, siding and windows distributor, donated nearly $2.5 million to the party. And Liz Uihlein, who co-founded the shipping supplies giant Uline with her husband Dick Uihlein, gave $1 million to the party.
“It’s outrageous that people can give six-figure, seven-figure donations to political parties. Not everyone has that capacity,” Rothschild said. “And it’s doubly ridiculous that people from outside of the state, who don’t even live here, can have such a huge influence as to what happens in this state.”
Donors large and small have a variety of ways to inject their money into Wisconsin politics. An individual can give directly to candidates, but must abide by state or federal limits. Donations to a candidate for federal office – like the presidency – are capped at $2,800 per election cycle. In Wisconsin, donations to a candidate for governor or district attorney are capped at $20,000 per election cycle. Lower caps apply to races farther down the ballot.
But an individual also can donate unlimited amounts to a Super PAC, which stands for “political action committee.” These organizations, created by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, have no restrictions on what they can raise and spend, but are barred by law from coordinating with political candidates.
In recent years, including this one, Hendricks and the Uihleins have also given millions to Super PACs that spend heavily on political ad campaigns in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
The trend in rising political cash in Wisconsin continued with the McCutcheon decision.
The state never has limited donations to political parties, according to Mike Wittenwyler — a Madison-based attorney specializing in campaign finance. The $10,000 aggregate, annual limit on total donations had served as a cap.
When the McCutcheon case eliminated that cap, it created a loophole for the super-rich to circumvent donation limits to candidates. Now there are no legal limits on what a person can donate to political parties in Wisconsin, and what state parties can donate. Unlike cash contributions to Super PACs, contributions to political parties in Wisconsin can be forwarded directly to candidates without limit.
State Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has introduced a bill to curtail that essentially unlimited cash pipeline from wealthy person to political party to candidate. Her proposal would place a $20,000 limit on donations to political parties in Wisconsin and restrict parties’ donations to candidates. The bill has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled legislature. Her office says she intends to reintroduce the bill next year.
Despite their cash advantage this year, state Democrats did not even come close to taking back any Congressional seats in 2020, but did nearly lose U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s seat in western Wisconsin. The district maps, including the Congressional ones, were drawn by Republicans in 2011, and heavily favor them, most experts agree. Dave Obey, a Democrat, held the 7th District in northern Wisconsin for 40 years before Republicans redrew the maps. Last month, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, a Republican, won reelection in that district by 20 points – an electoral blowout.
State Democrats focused on the state legislature and on protecting the veto power of Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, which they did — narrowly. Had Republicans won supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, they would have been able to override the governor’s veto — a particularly important edge considering that the legislature must approve new political districts in 2021.
A big check on that legislative redistricting power in Wisconsin is the governor must approve the new maps. He can block them by veto.
That issue intensified the races in many legislative districts, which led to huge sums of money pumped into seemingly modest legislative campaigns. That translated to more political ads on the TV and more fliers in the mailbox.
For example, Democrats successfully — but barely — protected an open state Senate seat in western Wisconsin with Brad Pfaff, who briefly served as the secretary designee to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection until Republicans refused to confirm him.
Pfaff “raised” nearly $1.5 million, an astounding and likely record amount for a state Senate seat that pays an annual salary of $53,000. But much of that cash — about $1 million — came from – or rather, through – the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and its various committees. An individual can only directly give a state senate candidate a maximum of $2,000 per election, according to campaign finance law.
Ed Miller, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said the flood of liberal donations could be attributed to several things, including President Donald Trump’s extreme unpopularity on the left, the success of the new chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin Ben Wikler, and the belief that some Republican state legislators could be defeated.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, reader-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.