More than $2.2 million raised and spent for $53k-a-year job
Political donations continue to accelerate after campaign finance laws relaxed in 2015
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
The race for the state Senate seat in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee was one of the most expensive in the history of the Wisconsin State Legislature, according to an analysis by The Badger Project.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican from River Hills who has served in the legislature for 30 years, defended her seat against Democrat Neal Plotkin, a substitute teacher from Glendale.
Darling won 54% of the nearly 120,000 votes cast in the race for the State Senate’s 8th District.
On the way to that result, the two candidates raised and spent a total of more than $2.2 million. And Plotkin, a first-time political candidate, won the money game. His total haul of campaign cash was more than $1.2 million. Almost all of that — nearly $1.1 million — came from the Democratic Party.
Darling raised an almost identical amount. Nearly half came from the GOP.
All for a job of state senator that pays $53,000 a year.
A first-time political candidate, Plotkin said it was “eye-opening” how much time he had to spend on the phone asking people for money. He said he was “very open” to running again.
“I kept all our extra campaign signs, just in case I need them,” he said.
Darling did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
Joseph Czarnezki, a Democrat who previously held the 8th District seat before Darling in the 1990s, said Democrats spent heavily on this race because they felt the incumbent was vulnerable.
But Czarnezki, now a supervisor on the Milwaukee County Board, also noted that the district is one of the wealthiest in the state, another reason for the huge pile of campaign cash last year.
And he credited gerrymandering with protecting incumbent Republicans.
“The fact that Democrats spent huge amounts of money on campaigns around the state, with little positive results, shows the strength of the gerrymandered legislative districts in Wisconsin,” he said.
Campaign finance laws weakened; floodgates open
Elections for the seat have seen much smaller amounts of cash raised in recent elections. Darling did not even have a general election opponent in the previous decade until 2020.
But in this race and across the state, the explosion in political cash in recent years can be attributed to the weakening of Wisconsin campaign finance laws in the last decade, said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state.
In 2015, after court cases watered down state campaign finance law, the Republican-controlled state legislature further diluted restrictions.
Those events have left a gaping loophole in Wisconsin campaign finance law. While individuals are limited in what they can donate directly to a candidate, political parties are now free from campaign finance limits. Super-rich donors can give unlimited amounts to political parties, which can turn around and give unlimited sums to candidates.
Out-of-state billionaire liberals like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, and Karla Jurvetson, a California physician, donated $2.5 million and $2.8 million, respectively, to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in 2020. Billionaires Diane Hendricks of ABC Building Supply, who lives in the Beloit area, and Elizabeth Uihlein of Uline Shipping Supplies, who splits time between Chicago and Wisconsin, gave $2.4 million and $1 million to state Republicans, respectively.
That mass of cash to political parties, and the lack of limits on those parties, are how Plotkin was able to receive more than $1 million from the Democratic Party, and Darling nearly $600,000 from the state GOP. By contrast, an individual can only give a state Senate candidate a maximum of $2,000.
“It’s just astonishing that the price tag for running for office just continues to shatter the ceiling into the stratosphere,” Rothschild said.
Whether Plotkin and Darling definitely shattered campaign spending records is somewhat unclear. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission, which monitors campaign finance in the state, has records dating back to 2008, Administrator Daniel A. Carlton Jr. said. Previous records have either been destroyed or are housed in a state building somewhere. But stricter campaign finance laws before 2015 and more modest spending in state legislative races back then make it likely that new highs were set last year.
Democrats have introduced a bill in the Republican-controlled legislature that would apply limits on donations to and from political parties in Wisconsin, but Republicans ignored it.
So the cash avalanche continues.
Plotkin accumulated a huge chest of over $1.2 million in campaign cash, but raised less than $170,000 from donors who weren’t the Democratic Party.
He donated $10,000 to his own campaign, and many labor groups including the Teamsters, the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters, AFSCME and several teachers unions each gave him $2,000, according to campaign finance records. The campaign committees for state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, (D-Madison) and Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, (D-Mason), each gave Plotkin $2,000.
Darling is no novice when it comes to big fundraising. When Democrats unsuccessfully tried to recall her along with then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, the state senator raised more than $1 million, a record at the time. In a quirk of state law, recall elections in Wisconsin allow candidates to fundraise without limit for 60 days.
This time, she raised about $650,000 from sources outside the Republican Party, according to campaign finance records.
While committees and individuals are only allowed to give a state senate candidate a maximum of $2,000 per 4-year election cycle, the Milwaukee Police Association, the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Credit Union League each gave Darling between $2,500 and $4,000. Those are potentially campaign finance violations.
The political action committees from big business like Philip Morris, Deloitte, Charter Communications, Walmart, and Festival Foods each gave her the maximum $2,000. Corporations, tribes and unions are forbidden from donating directly to candidates, but they can have their own PACs, which can raise money from employees or members. These organizations can donate directly to candidates.
Wisconsin trade associations representing realtors, bankers, builders and dentists each gave Darling the maximum $2,000, as did Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance.
The biggest donors to each candidate are listed below.
Independent spending from Super PACs
The record campaign spending does not include spending from groups independent of the campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent spending also flooded the northern suburbs of Milwaukee to influence the election.
These organizations, some of which are called Super PACs, are generally prohibited from coordinating with political campaigns, but they can raise and spend unlimited amounts attacking or promoting a candidate or an issue on the airwaves, online or in print. The 2010 Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court allowed for the creation of some groups and unleashed others. Also, some independent spending groups are not always required to disclose their donors.
A liberal Super PAC called A Better Wisconsin Together spent nearly $300,000 on internet ads attacking Darling, according to campaign finance records.
The Wisconsin Super PAC for Planned Parenthood spent more than $30,000 attacking Darling with online advertising, and more than $30,000 supporting Plotkin.
The Super PAC for Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy group launched and funded by the Koch Brothers, spent more than $10,000 supporting Darling, including running online ads.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
TOP 100 DONORS TO DARLING IN 2020
|CMTE TO ELECT A REPUBLICAN SENATE OF WISCONSIN||$322,116||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN REPUBLICAN PARTY||$243,256||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|MILWAUKEE POLICE ASSOCIATION||$4,000||Non-Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WISCONSIN BEER DISTRIBUTORS ASSOCIATION||$3,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|METROPOLITAN MILWAUKEE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE||$3,000||Non-Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WISCONSIN CREDIT UNION LEAGUE||$2,500||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|SCHLOEMER, JAMES H||$2,500||Individual||MENOMONEE FALLS||WI|
|CRICHTON, JOHN B||$2,500||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|PHILIP MORRIS USA||$2,250||Non-Individual||WASHINGTON||DC|
|DELOITTE TOUCHE TOHMATSU||$2,000||Non-Individual||WASHINGTON||DC|
|FOREST COUNTY POTAWATOMI||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN REALTORS ASSOCIATION||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN BANKERS ASSOCIATION||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN BUILDERS ASSOCIATION||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN DENTAL ASSOCIATION||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN INSURANCE ALLIANCE||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN MANUFACTURERS & COMMERCE||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|OZAUKEE COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY||$2,000||Non-Individual||CEDARBURG||WI|
|HILLIS, ROBERT J (BOB)||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|HENDRICKS, KIMBERLEE K (KIM)||$2,000||Individual||JANESVILLE||WI|
|EASTHAM, WILLIAM E||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|MILLS, SANDRA R||$2,000||Individual||MENASHA||WI|
|AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN||$2,000||Non-Individual||ALEXANDRIA||VA|
|GREATER MILWAUKEE ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS||$2,000||Non-Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|CMTE TO ELECT JOAN BALLWEG||$2,000||Non-Individual||MARKESAN||WI|
|MICHELS, PATRICK D||$2,000||Individual||BROWNSVILLE||WI|
|MCKEITHAN JR, DANIEL F (JACK)||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|ZORE, DIANE||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|JENKINS, ROBERT H (BOB)||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|KUBLY, MICHAEL C||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|BAUMGARTNER, DONALD W||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|MCKEITHAN, PATRICIA BRASH WARD||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|LUBAR, SHELDON B||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|UIHLEIN JR, DAVID VOGEL||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|FESTIVAL FOODS||$2,000||Non-Individual||De Pere||WI|
|PETULLO, ANTHONY J||$2,000||Individual||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
|UIHLEIN, ELIZABETH A (LIZ)||$2,000||Individual||LAKE FOREST||IL|
|BURKE, KATHRYN M||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WHITE, MICHAEL H||$2,000||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|ORR, JOANNE||$2,000||Individual||VILLAGE OF GOLF||FL|
|HAUSKE, THOMAS||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|MICHELS, KEVIN P||$2,000||Individual||FOND DU LAC||WI|
|AGGREGATE PRODUCERS OF WISCONSIN||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|ALLIANCE OF HEALTH INSURERS||$2,000||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|CARPENTER, CAROL ANNE||$2,000||Individual||BAYSIDE||WI|
|TRUNZO, ANNE CALLAN||$2,000||Individual||BROOKFIELD||WI|
|OMALLEY, JAMES||$2,000||Individual||ELM GROVE||WI|
|ROBBINS, ELIZABETH||$2,000||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|FRIENDS OF MARY||$2,000||Non-Individual||MECHANICSBURG||PA|
|WAGNER, JO ANN||$2,000||Individual||MEQUON||WI|
|ELLIS, JOSEPH S||$1,950||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WISCONSIN HEALTH CARE ASSOCIATION||$1,750||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|HUIZENGA, JOHN CHARLES (J C)||$1,750||Individual||GRAND RAPIDS||MI|
|ELDRIDGE, WENDY||$1,750||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|DICKINSON, KATHLEEN L (KATHY)||$1,580||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|ELI LILLY & CO||$1,500||Non-Individual||INDIANAPOLIS||IN|
|WISCONSIN ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATION||$1,500||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN ENERGY CORP||$1,500||Non-Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|GREBE SR, MICHAEL W||$1,500||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|MILWAUKEE PROFESSIONAL FIRE FIGHTERS LOCAL 215||$1,500||Non-Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|DARROW JR, RUSSELL M||$1,500||Individual||WEST BEND||WI|
|BARRY, WILLIAM E||$1,500||Individual||BROOKFIELD||WI|
|JENKINS, DIANNE||$1,500||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|YOUNG JR, FRED M||$1,500||Individual||RACINE||WI|
|GREENBERG, BEVERLY (BEV)||$1,500||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|STERNER, FRANK M||$1,500||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|DAVIS, DON H||$1,500||Individual||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
|SCHUEMANN, MARGARET||$1,500||Individual||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|MINAHAN, SUSAN||$1,500||Individual||FOX POINT||WI|
|MINAHAN, DANIEL||$1,500||Individual||FOX POINT||WI|
|BNSF RAILWAY CO||$1,250||Non-Individual||FORT WORTH||TX|
|WISCONSIN ASSISTED LIVING ASSOCIATION||$1,250||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|ZIETLOW, DONALD P (DON)||$1,250||Individual||LA CROSSE||WI|
|HENTZEN, ALBERT L||$1,250||Individual||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WISCONSIN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION||$1,250||Non-Individual||MADISON||WI|
|LANG, GORDON||$1,250||Individual||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
TOP 100 DONORS TO PLOTKIN IN 2020
|STATE SENATE DEMOCRATIC CMTE OF WISCONSIN||$688,671||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN DEMOCRATIC PARTY||$380,470||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|PLOTKIN, NEAL S||$10,000||INDIVIDUAL||GLENDALE||WI|
|DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF OZAUKEE COUNTY||$5,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||CEDARBURG||WI|
|PAGE, CARL||$2,950||INDIVIDUAL||SAN FRANCISCO||CA|
|PAGE, GLORIA||$2,200||INDIVIDUAL||LOS ALTOS||CA|
|INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS / IBT||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC|
|FEDERATION OF TEACHERS LOCAL 212||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|WISCONSIN LABORERS DISTRICT COUNCIL||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||DE FOREST||WI|
|SEIU LOCAL 1||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||CHICAGO||IL|
|SEIU WISCONSIN STATE COUNCIL||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN STATE COUNCIL OF CARPENTERS||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|BURNS, TIMOTHY W||$2,000||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|COULEE REGION UNITED EDUCATORS||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||LACROSSE||WI|
|JON ERPENBACH SENATE CMTE||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MIDDLETON||WI|
|ELECTRICAL WORKERS LOCAL 494||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|PLUMBERS & STEAMFITTERS LOCAL 11||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||DULUTH||MN|
|GABERT, STEVEN C||$2,000||INDIVIDUAL||WAUWATOSA||WI|
|JANET BEWLEY CAMPAIGN CMTE||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||ASHLAND||WI|
|WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 7||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||BROOKFIELD||WI|
|AFSCME WISCONSIN COUNCIL 32||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|PAGE, BARBARA||$2,000||INDIVIDUAL||PALO ALTO||CA|
|NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC REDISTRICTING CMTE||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC|
|KERN, DEBORAH||$2,000||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI|
|MILWAUKEE AREA SERVICE & HOSPITALITY WORKERS / MASH||$2,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|LUBAR, MARIANNE S||$1,450||INDIVIDUAL||RIVER HILLS||WI|
|PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF WISCONSIN||$1,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6||$1,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|MILLER JR, JOHN W||$1,000||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI|
|SHILLING FOR SENATE||$1,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||LA CROSSE||WI|
|FRIENDS OF MELISSA SARGENT||$1,000||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|HOA, LONG TAM||$1,000||INDIVIDUAL||SAN FRANCISCO||CA|
|GARCIA, REBECCA||$1,000||INDIVIDUAL||MENOMONEE FALLS||WI|
|PACKARD, TAMARA B||$750||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|CHAPMAN, CHARLES STEPHEN||$501||INDIVIDUAL||LAKE OSWEGO||OR|
|WASHINGTON COUNTY DEMOCRATIC CENTRAL CMTE OF WISCONSIN||$500||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WEST BEND||WI|
|SHEET METAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION / SMWIA||$500||NON-INDIVIDUAL||NORTH OLMSTED||OH|
|KAMENITSA, LYNN||$500||INDIVIDUAL||OAK PARK||IL|
|THOMSEN, MARK L||$500||INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|OTT, MARLENE F||$500||INDIVIDUAL||GREENDALE||WI|
|GOYKE, GARY R||$500||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|NICHOLSON, DONNA R||$500||INDIVIDUAL||MEQUON||WI|
|EGLASH, HY & SHEILA||$500||INDIVIDUAL||MEQUON||WI|
|EISMAN, EUGENE H||$460||INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|GRUNBAUM, GUSTAVO||$400||INDIVIDUAL||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
|TALMADGE, RICHARD||$385||INDIVIDUAL||BEDFORD HILLS||NY|
|HABUSH, ROBERT||$350||INDIVIDUAL||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
|NOCTON, JAMES||$350||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI|
|MAXTONE-GRAHAM, IAN||$308||INDIVIDUAL||PACIFIC PALISADES||CA|
|GEAREN, JOHN||$308||INDIVIDUAL||OAK PARK||IL|
|LYNCH, JOHN||$300||INDIVIDUAL||WHITEFISH BAY||WI|
|FONSTAD, BRIDGET||$300||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI|
|KOLANDA, JO A||$300||INDIVIDUAL||MEQUON||WI|
|FRIENDS OF MARK MILLER||$250||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MONONA||WI|
|CHERNOW, BOB W||$250||INDIVIDUAL||GRAFTON||WI|
|CLIFFORD, KEITH R||$250||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|RUSINOW, JEFFREY B (JEFF)||$250||INDIVIDUAL||GRAFTON||WI|
|REDMOND, MICHAEL J||$250||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI|
|JOSEPH, BONNIE BOCKL||$250||INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI|
|PETERING, DAVID H||$250||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI|