Front Groups Dive Into Wisconsin Recall Elections

While the sounds of daily protest at the Wisconsin Capitol building from the spring's mass demonstrations have faded, the TV ad war in the state Senate recall elections prove the heated political climate in the state has not cooled.

August Recalls Heat Up

Six Wisconsin Republican senators will face recall on August 9th. The special elections resulted from demands that legislators who went along with Governor Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill and drastic budget cuts be removed from office. Republicans have countered these elections by launching recalls against two Democratic senators, scheduled for August 16th.

Spending on these elections is expected to be unprecedented and much of it undisclosed. Many of the groups forking over huge sums are registered under the IRS code 501(c)(4), meaning they are not technically required to disclose their donors to the state's election board. Such groups also hide their spending from public disclosure by using "issue" advocacy ads, which refer to candidates and legislation, but stop a hairpin-short of telling the viewer how to vote.

These tactics, coupled with last year's Supreme Court decision in the case called Citizens United that struck down election reforms designed to regulate such election eve expenditures that influence political races, has allowed outside spending to flood into the Wisconsin recall elections. According to data obtained by We Are Wisconsin, a duly registered "political action committee," groups in support of Republican candidates that do not disclose their spending or their donors to the Government Accountability Board have already spent nearly $5.5 million in the local ad buys and that number will climb. Wisconsin Common Cause, a non-partisan, non-profit citizen's lobby, projects that total spending by candidates and outside groups could reach over $25 million.

In 2010, the average Wisconsin state senate race cost only $209,076.

Koch-Funded "Americans for Prosperity" Accused of Misleading Voters

In addition to buying ads in the local media, Americans for Prosperity (AFP)--whose board is chaired by controversial industrialist David Koch--has been accused of attempting to sway the elections by deceiving Wisconsin voters, but only Democratic voters.

Politico reported Monday that AFP mailed absentee ballots to Democrats in at least two districts telling citizens to return their ballot two days after the election date. AFP State Director Matt Seaholm called it a "typo." Formal complaints have been filed with the Wisconsin Elections Board.

Last week, the group purchased over $150,000 in television ad time for Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee, and this week $90,000 in the Wausau television market. The ads they are running focus on debt, job loss, and what they call former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's "unbalanced budget," blaming these all on the Democrats legislators.

"Club for Growth" Leads in Undisclosed Spending

The group responsible for the largest portion of this behind-the-scenes spending is Club for Growth (CFG), a right-wing political group founded by the Wall Street Journal's Steven Moore and fueled in part by hedge fund money. Club for Growth Wisconsin has laid down more than $2.6 million in recall-related ad buys in Wisconsin so far. R.J. Johnson is a key adviser to Club for Growth Wisconsin (CFGW), and was also a political strategist for Walker's campaign. Three days after Walker introduced his budget bill, the group unleashed a TV ad asking public workers to pay "their fair share"(but not for corporations to do the same). During the State's Supreme Court judicial election, CFGW released video ads endorsing incumbent Justice David T. Prosser, Jr. in a close election in which Prosser's spokesman had once touted how close the judge's views were to Walker's agenda.

One of the key issues Democrats have focused on in the recall efforts is the $800 million cuts made to public education in the recently passed GOP budget. CFGW has worked hard to muddy the waters on education. The group launched an ad that accuses Democratic Rep. Sandy Pasch (running against sitting State Senator Alberta Darling) of voting for a huge school-funding cut. The radio ad asserts that Pasch voted to cut school aid by nearly $300 million. The group also ran ads making the same argument about the voting records of two other Democratic challengers.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fact-checked this statement and found it referred to a 2009-2011 budget submitted by former Democratic Gov. Doyle, who proposed cutting state aid for schools by $290 million. Doyle anticipated that the funding gap would be filled and then increased by some $877 million in federal stimulus funds. But the stimulus money fell short of this, and the hole in the funding remained unplugged. The ads make no mention of the Republican candidates' roles in supporting Scott Walker's cuts to public education.

"Citizens for a Strong America" is Back

Citizens for a Strong America, a new shadowy entity with links to the staff of Koch's Americans for Prosperity has spent just under $700,000. As CMD previously reported, this group advertises its address as "834 Park Avenue #306" in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, but this address is nothing more than a box at a UPS Store. CSA pumped huge sums into advertising during the Prosser campaign for the Supreme Court, and now is meddling in the recalls. CSA has attempted in a series of ads to portray Republican Senator Sheila Harsdorf's Democratic challenger and public school teacher Shelly Moore, as an aggressive loud-mouth.

At one point the video cuts to Moore, almost as in a scene out of a horror film, saying "We breathe union." The editor had decided to cut out the more neutral beginning to her sentence where she says, "We bleed Packer green, Brewer blue and Badger red. We believe that the three major food groups are beer, cheese and bratwurst. And we breathe union."

"A lot of times, these groups do the dirty work," The Executive Director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Mike McCabe told The Capital Times. "They get down in the gutter for the candidates."

"American Federation for Children"

In a 60-second spot paid for by The American Federation for Children (AFC), a 501(c)(4) organization created to help legitimate privatizing public education, plays off of the education theme asserting that "there's no stronger advocate for our kids" than incumbent Republican Senator Alberta Darling.

This group has so far spent over $500,000 during this election season. Betsy DeVos, the sister of Erik Prince of Xe, the private mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater, chairs this group and has been an aggressive promoter of school voucher programs. She launched the pro-voucher group "All Children Matter" in 2003, which spent $7.6 million in its first year alone to promote the adoption of state voucher programs and she founded AFC in 2010. Her husband, Richard "Dick" DeVos, Sr., has advocated for dropping the term "public schools" in favor of the term "government schools" and has poured millions of dollars into groups that advocate "school choice," or voucher programs.

Wisconsin's Former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was convicted on three felony counts of campaign fraud in 2006, which were later dropped, and who pleaded guilty to violating state ethics law is a senior advisor to DeVos's group.

"Wisconsin Family Action" Changes the Topic

Wisconsin Family Action (WFA) has funneled nearly $500,000 into the recalls elections so far. This 501(c)(4) is tied to the Wisconsin Family Council, which fights against equality for gays and lesbians in the state. The group is headed by Juliane Appling, who is currently involved in a legal challenges to revoke the domestic partner registry law signed by former Governor Doyle. But the right-wing social issues they tout on their website are not mentioned in their advertisements. Rather WFA focuses on Republican Senator Luther Olsen's challenger Democrat Fred Clark's driving record.

In an article on WFA in the Wisconsin Gazette, the newspaper notes Wisconsin political players speculate that WFA is a funnel of money from other sources, such as perhaps Club for Growth or Americans for Prosperity or their funders.

"All of a sudden this little, tiny anti-gay outfit becomes a major player on the political scene? Come on. They've become a front group for somebody's dirty cash," Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate told the Gazette.

Candidates Less Influential than Outside Groups

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a national organization which monitors campaign spots, finding that 80 percent of the major market broadcast ads in the recall elections where put on air by groups, not candidates.

"I'm in awe of [the disclosure] process," said Anne Bauer, researcher at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in an interview with CMD. "These political operatives always seem to be two-steps ahead. They are continually getting around the regulations."

Republican Senate President Mike Ellis told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that outside spending has left the candidates as bystanders in their own campaigns.

"For the first time in the history of Wisconsin politics - and you can print this - candidates are now almost irrelevant to campaigns," he said. "They have hijacked these elections - both sides. And the candidates have nothing to do with it."


*This data is based on tracking ad buys and may not encompass the full amount of money spent by these outside groups. The spending is expected to surge much higher in the last few days before the elections.

Americans for Prosperity: $240,000

American Federation for Children: $501,375

Club for Growth Wisconsin: $2,637,864

Citizens for a Strong America: $692,890

Republican State Leadership Committee: $233,234

Wisconsin Family Action: $483,053

Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce: $694,623

American Patriot Recall Coalition: unknown

Jobs First Coalition: unknown

State Government Leadership Foundation: unknown