Investigations

Record campaign spending for state Senate district that includes Stevens Point, Tomah

Nearly $1.9 million raised and spent for a $53,000-a-year-job

Political donations continue to accelerate after campaign finance laws relaxed in 2015

State Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), right, defeated Democrat Paul Piotrowski in November.

BY PETER CAMERON

The two candidates for the 24th Senate District, which includes Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Tomah and Sparta, raised and spent nearly $2 million in a race that was ultimately won by incumbent state Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point).

That’s one of the most expensive races in the history of the Wisconsin State Legislature, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by the Point/Plover Metro Wire and The Badger Project.

In a sign of the times, the previous spending record for the legislature was actually broken four times in the 2020 campaign cycle.

In the tally that matters most, Testin held the seat easily with more than 56% of more than 95,000 votes cast.

But his challenger, retired police officer Paul Piotrowski, won the money game. The Democrat raised and spent more than $1.1 million, most of which came from his political party. Testin raised and spent more than $700,000.

The Republican state senator said his campaign was able to overcome the big difference in spending.

“While money is important and it certainly plays a factor, at the end of the day it’s who is willing to go out there and work the hardest and wear out the shoe leather to get their message out,” he said.

Ed Miller, a political science professor at UW-Stevens Point who taught both candidates, said Democrats spent heavily because they thought they could flip a seat they had held as recently as 2012.

“Most importantly,” Miller said, the state GOP drew the 24th State Senate District in 2011 to include rural areas to the west and south of Stevens Point, making it a safer seat for Republicans.

Piotrowski, who said he would not run again, lamented that rural areas had shifted to the right, making his path to victory more difficult.

Campaign finance laws weakened; floodgates open

Elections for the 24th District — and the rest of the state — used to see much smaller amounts of campaign cash raised. Between 2000 and 2012, the general election for the seat never saw the two candidates raise and spend more than $150,000.

But in 2016, Testin and the incumbent Democrat raised nearly $850,000. In 2020, the total haul for the seat was more than double that.

The explosion in cash from political parties in recent years can be directly 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 effectively removed donation limits to and from political parties, the Republican-controlled state legislature further diluted restrictions.

Those events have left a gaping hole in Wisconsin campaign finance law. While individuals are limited in what they can donate directly to a candidate, super rich donors can now give unlimited amounts to political parties, which can turn around and give unlimited sums to candidates.

Wealthy donors are increasingly taking advantage of this. In 2020, 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. 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, last year 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, is how Piotrowski was able to receive more than $800,000 from the Democratic Party, and Testin was able to receive nearly $250,000 from the state GOP. By contrast, an individual can only give a state Senate candidate in Wisconsin a maximum of $2,000 per election.

“It’s just astonishing that the price tag for running for office just continues to shatter the ceiling into the stratosphere,” Rothschild said.

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.

Testin said he was open to campaign finance reforms, but was noncommittal about closing the specific loophole to and from political parties.

“We’d have to take a look,” he said.

Who donated

Not including contributions from the GOP, Testin raised about $500,000.

He received a lot of financial support from big business. The political action committees for Alliant Energy, Charter Communications, General Motors, Walmart, Festival Foods and Humana all gave him 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, often from employees or members. These organizations can donate directly to candidates.

The powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association also both gave Testin the maximum $2,000, as did state trade associations for realtors, builders, dentists and anesthesiologists.

Piotrowski raised about $300,000, not including the $800,000 he got from the Democratic Party.

He donated more than $10,000 to his own campaign.

Organized labor was also a big supporter. Piotrowski received the maximum $2,000 from union political action committees representing electrical workers, teamsters, sheet metal workers, teachers, carpenters and train engineers.

Independent spending on attack ads

The record campaign spending in the race for the 24th District in the Wisconsin State Senate does not even include independent spending, which falls in a separate category.

These shadowy 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 required to disclose their donors.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group of the Koch Brothers network, spent more than $90,000 on things like mailing brochures and online advertising in support of Testin.

The independent spending groups including For Our Future, formed by former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, the Monona-based A Better Wisconsin Together, which is associated with the liberal One Wisconsin Now, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a coalition of labor, environment, senior citizen and other groups, spent more than $80,000 on things like online and mail advertising in support of Piotrowski.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.


TOP DONORS TO TESTIN

DONORTYPECITYSTATETOTAL
CMTE TO ELECT A REPUBLICAN SENATE OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$122,834
WISCONSIN REPUBLICAN PARTYNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$116,543
DUDAS, MICHAELINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$6,000
WISCONSIN CREDIT UNION LEAGUENON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$3,000
WISCONSIN BANKERS ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$3,000
LUDINGTON, DAVD PINDIVIDUALONALASKAWI$3,000
WYSOCKI, LOUISINDIVIDUALCUSTERWI$2,550
WISCONSIN ASSOCIATION OF NURSE ANESTHETISTSNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,500
US VENTURENON-INDIVIDUALAPPLETONWI$2,500
HOFFMAN, JAMESINDIVIDUALBLACK RIVER FALLSWI$2,750
ZAGELOW, MIKEINDIVIDUALMILTONWI$2,200
ALLIANT ENERGYNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
CHARTER COMMUNICATIONSNON-INDIVIDUALSTAMFORDCT$2,000
GENERAL MOTORSNON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
WALMARTNON-INDIVIDUALBENTONVILLEAR$2,000
WISCONSIN REALTORS ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN BUILDERS ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN DENTAL ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN ENERGY CORPNON-INDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
WISCONSIN INSURANCE ALLIANCENON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN BEER DISTRIBUTORS ASSOCIATIONNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
TAVERN LEAGUE OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALFITCHBURGWI$2,000
WISCONSIN SOCIETY OF ANESTHESIOLOGISTSNON-INDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
ASSOCIATED BUILDERS & CONTRACTORS OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
DANTCHIK, ARTHURINDIVIDUALGLADWYNEPA$2,000
DEVIN LEMAHIEU CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALOOSTBURGWI$2,000
CITIZENS FOR TIFFANYNON-INDIVIDUALMERRILLWI$2,000
HENDRICKS, KIMBERLEE K (KIM)INDIVIDUALJANESVILLEWI$2,000
DAVIS, DWIGHT EINDIVIDUALMOSINEEWI$2,000
SPOERL, ROBERTINDIVIDUALWAUPACAWI$2,000
LINDEMANN, JEFFINDIVIDUALAPPLETONWI$2,000
CMTE TO ELECT JOAN BALLWEGNON-INDIVIDUALMARKESANWI$2,000
HALL, ANTHONYINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$2,000
PAVELSKI, JEREMIE MINDIVIDUALWISCONSIN RAPIDSWI$2,000
ROGER J ROTH JR CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALAPPLETONWI$2,000
FESTIVAL FOODSNON-INDIVIDUALDE PEREWI$2,000
REBECCA PACNON-INDIVIDUALMIDDLETONWI$2,000
TURNEY, SUSANINDIVIDUALMONONAWI$2,000
WYSOCKI, GARYINDIVIDUALBANCROFTWI$2,000
AGGREGATE PRODUCERS OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
ALLIANCE OF HEALTH INSURERSNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
PAVELSKI, ALICIAINDIVIDUALWISCONSIN RAPIDSWI$2,000
ROBERTS, PAULINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$2,000
DAN FEYEN CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALFOND DU LACWI$2,000
MARY CZAJA FELZKOWSKI CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALMECHANICSBURGPA$2,000
WISCONSIN PHYSICAL THERAPYNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
HUMANA INC P A CNON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
BELL AMBULANCE INC EMPLOYEESNON-INDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
MURILLO, SHARONINDIVIDUALELM GROVEWI$2,000
HUTTER, BRADLEYINDIVIDUALMIDDLETONWI$2,000
HERZOG, SHAWNINDIVIDUALPLOVERWI$2,000
WISCONSIN FEDERATION FOR CHILDRENNON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
LIEGEL, SIMONINDIVIDUALSPRING GREENWI$2,000
SCHMALZ, STEVEINDIVIDUALINDIANAPOLISIN$2,000
OBRIEN, TIMINDIVIDUALFITCHBURGWI$2,000
OBRIEN, BECKIINDIVIDUALFITCHBURGWI$2,000
SCHMALZ, JULIEINDIVIDUALINDIANAPOLISIN$2,000

TOP DONORS TO PIOTROWSKI

DONORTYPECITYSTATETOTAL
STATE SENATE DEMOCRATIC CMTE OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$518,530
WISCONSIN DEMOCRATIC PARTYNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$336,620
PIOTROWSKI, PAULINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$10,333
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS / IBEWNON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS / IBTNON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
SHEET METAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION / SMWIANON-INDIVIDUALNORTH OLMSTEDOH$2,000
WISCONSIN FEDERATION OF TEACHERSNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN LABORERS DISTRICT COUNCILNON-INDIVIDUALDE FORESTWI$2,000
WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6NON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6NON-INDIVIDUALMOSINEEWI$2,000
UAW REGION 4NON-INDIVIDUALSHEBOYGANWI$2,000
WISCONSIN STATE COUNCIL OF CARPENTERSNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
BROTHERHOOD OF LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEERS & TRAINMEN / BLETNON-INDIVIDUALINDEPENDENCEOH$2,000
UIHLEIN, LYNDE BINDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
BURNS, TIMOTHY WINDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
SCHILLING, PAULINDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
COULEE REGION UNITED EDUCATORSNON-INDIVIDUALLACROSSEWI$2,000
JON ERPENBACH SENATE CMTENON-INDIVIDUALMIDDLETONWI$2,000
ELECTRICAL WORKERS LOCAL 494NON-INDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
SCHROECKENTHALER, FREDINDIVIDUALPLOVERWI$2,000
PLUMBERS & GASFITTERS LOCAL 75NON-INDIVIDUALMILWAUKEEWI$2,000
MCCABE, RONALDINDIVIDUALWISCONSIN RAPIDSWI$2,000
MUNSEY, JUDYINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$2,000
SHILLING FOR SENATENON-INDIVIDUALLA CROSSEWI$2,000
NOEL, JOHN MINDIVIDUALPLOVERWI$2,000
KAVULICH, SUSANINDIVIDUALMIDDLETONWI$2,000
NOEL, PATRICIA D (PATTY)INDIVIDUALPLOVERWI$2,000
KATRINA SHANKLAND CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$2,000
JANET BEWLEY CAMPAIGN CMTENON-INDIVIDUALASHLANDWI$2,000
AFSCME WISCONSIN COUNCIL 32NON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
FLIPPABLENON-INDIVIDUALBROOKLYNNY$2,000
NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC REDISTRICTING CMTENON-INDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$2,000
KERN, DEBORAHINDIVIDUALFOX POINTWI$2,000
WOLESKE, JOSEPHINDIVIDUALMADISONWI$2,000
MILLER, JOHN W WINDIVIDUALFOX POINTWI$2,000
MIGAS, ROSALIE AINDIVIDUALMADISONWI$1,850
VILS, MARYINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$1,800
WOOD COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTYNON-INDIVIDUALMARSHFIELDWI$1,500
FRIENDS OF KELDA ROYSNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$1,500
KIRSCH, MATTHEWINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$1,450
CHRISTENSEN, RENEEINDIVIDUALWASHINGTONDC$1,300
MCKEE, CHARLESINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$1,250
RAY, CALINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$1,250
GROOS, FREDINDIVIDUALSTEVENS POINTWI$1,250
HERMAN, DANIELINDIVIDUALWISCONSIN RAPIDSWI$1,200
LEVITAN, STUINDIVIDUALMADISONWI$1,100
PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF WISCONSINNON-INDIVIDUALMADISONWI$1,000
ROSWELL, MARJORIEINDIVIDUALBALTIMOREMD$1,000
HESS, LAWRENCE EINDIVIDUALSAN DIEGOCA$1,000
LEPINSKI, BETHINDIVIDUALAPPLETONWI$1,000

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.