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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Who's Buying Wisconsin's Recall Elections?

Local and out-of-state groups show strong interest

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The unprecedented recalls of nine state senators have sparked the interest of organizations seeking an advantage in Wisconsin politics.

For Republicans, it's a do-or-die moment. If the Democrats can flip three seats in the Senate, the GOP and its conservative allies will lose the complete control they currently have over the three branches of the state government.

For Democrats and the labor movement, the recalls are the only way they can return from the dead. If they can't take out three of six Republican senators and defend the seats of three Democrats who are being recalled, then their immediate future is quite bleak. More of Gov. Scott Walker's extreme right-wing policy agenda will be rubber-stamped by a compliant Legislature. Even more serious, the Republicans totally control the redistricting process, so the Republican-controlled Legislature will draw lines that will favor their party for the next 10 years. And in contrast to years of razor-thin results that have favored Democrats in statewide races, Wisconsin could turn red in the 2012 presidential election because of the Republican-backed legislation that has made it harder for many students, elderly residents and poor people to vote.

So it's no surprise that the July and August recall elections are generating extraordinary attention in Wisconsin and around the country, spurring a host of special interest groups to register with the state Government Accountability Board (GAB) and begin soliciting donations and spending that money on operations, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

But a new wrinkle this year could allow these groups to essentially take over the elections: ever-loosening campaign finance laws, which allow some groups—depending on how they're structured—to spend heavily without ever disclosing the sources of their campaign war chests. Unlike candidates, political parties and traditional political action committees (PACs), these new special interest entities aren't subject to campaign finance limits, can take money from corporations and don't have to report their donors. Some groups—such as the Greater Wisconsin Committee and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters—operate both types of entities, which allows them to use disclosed and anonymous money to further their causes.

According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) Executive Director Mike McCabe, campaigns and political parties are virtually outsourcing their operations to these unregulated special interest groups, most of whom have bland, unremarkable monikers designed to cover up their true intentions.

“They are basically party front groups, but they are not the formal party organizations,” McCabe said. “They're behaving like party groups and in some cases they're really serving almost in the role of the candidate. They're doing most of the talking.”

Local and National Groups Get In

Although it's too early to predict how much money will flow through Wisconsin during recall season—campaign finance reports will be filed with the GAB this week—it's safe to predict that as we get close to the August general recall elections, campaign ads will blanket the airwaves, robocalls will be endless and tens of thousands of doors will be knocked.

The WDC's list of special interest organizations involved in the recalls includes a few familiar names. Supporting Republicans are the national school voucher outfit American Federation for Children Action Fund, the Waukesha County Tea Party and Club for Growth Wisconsin, while Democratic allies are the teachers' union WEAC, Greater Wisconsin Committee, Voces de la Frontera Action Committee, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

National organizations such as MoveOn.org, People for the American Way and the Utah-based American Patriot Recall Coalition have registered with the GAB. Expect more to follow in the coming weeks, especially those who see an advantage in getting into the race late and flush with money for wall-to-wall radio and TV ads that drown out the candidates' own messages.

Other groups are less familiar, such as Patriot Advisors LLC, supporting two protest candidates; the Faith Family Freedom Fund, an offshoot of former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's Family Research Council, supporting the Republicans; and the Milwaukee-based grassroots group Playground Legends, which is opposing Republican Sen. Alberta Darling in her Aug. 9 recall election, when she will face popular state Rep. Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay.

We Are Wisconsin Raises $4 Million

The main group organizing against incumbent Republicans is We Are Wisconsin PAC, a six-week-old coalition of labor and progressive groups that launched in the wake of Walker's divisive collective bargaining bill.

The group is promoting the fact that it has organized as a traditional PAC—with Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, acting as treasurer—and, unlike these new non-disclosure entities, will fully disclose its donors and expenditures. It just reported raising $4 million for its efforts and knocking on 100,000 doors over the holiday weekend.

Sheila Cochran, head of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, which is part of the We Are Wisconsin coalition, said that the recalls are the unions' “singular focus” right now.

Although the unions are seen as the prime mover behind the recall efforts, “this isn't something that we planned,” Cochran said.

After Walker and Republican majorities had been elected in November 2010, unions strategized about how they would handle anticipated threats to the labor movement, such as so-called “right-to-work” legislation, Walker's rejection of $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail, and planned corporate-friendly tax breaks and “tort reform.” Cochran said Wisconsin's labor leaders were seeing similar anti-worker reforms unfold in other states, backed by conservative, pro-corporate groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and various tea party groups.

But Cochran said unions did not anticipate Walker's “bomb”—the governor's description of his out-of-right-field assault on collective bargaining rights. So although they had a plan to deal with some rollback of workers' rights, public-union-busting was not on their radar.

Enter the recalls.

Republican Supporters Got in Early

Supporting Republicans is Club for Growth Wisconsin, which began running TV ads for its favorite conservative legislators during the collective bargaining bill stalemate, before the recall elections had started.

Unlike the pro-Democratic PAC We Are Wisconsin—which must disclose its donors, who are subject to contribution limits—Club for Growth Wisconsin is a corporation that is running issue ads in favor of its recall candidates, including River Hills' Darling. According to campaign finance rules, “issue ad” groups such as Club for Growth Wisconsin do not have to disclose donors and can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals. In this way, donors from around the country can contribute anonymously to campaign entities that support their interests. The public never has to know their involvement.

According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's data, the organization has spent more than $1 million on Wisconsin elections since 2007. Expect that number to jump this summer. (Club for Growth Wisconsin did not return the Shepherd's request for comment on its election activity.)

McCabe said other Republican-supporting organizations to watch are the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee and another group that shares the same contact information and address, the State Government Leadership Foundation.

Both groups have run TV ads against Democrats who are facing recalls. Like Club for Growth Wisconsin, these groups do not have to disclose their donors, and donors are not subject to campaign finance limits.

The national pro-school-voucher group American Federation for Children Action Fund Inc. has also filed with the state GAB. As a corporation, it is not subject to campaign finance limits or disclosure. The group—whose state chapter is headed by former Republican legislative leader Scott Jensen—has spent millions on state and local races in recent years. It spent an estimated $820,000 on last fall's legislative and gubernatorial races, according to McCabe's analysis.

Republican-supporting PACs include Ralph Reed's Faith Family Freedom Fund and the Wisconsin Right to Life PAC.

The deadline for campaign finance reports was July 5; we'll provide more details on the reports in next week's
Shepherd Express as well as on the Daily Dose blog on expressmilwaukee.com.

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