Can Democrats Hold on to Hard Won Wisconsin State Senate?

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Wisconsin and US FlagDemocrats have a one-seat majority in the Wisconsin Senate after three Republicans lost seats in historic recall elections, but 16 seats are up for grabs in November, and with them the balance of power. In recent weeks, many have focused on the race between Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and former governor Tommy Thompson, which may determine who holds the majority in the U.S. Senate, but the state Senate races are significant because many Wisconsinites are concerned about having a firewall against embattled Governor Scott Walker's 2013 legislative agenda.

Wisconsin had historic recall battles in 2011 and 2012. In all, 13 Senate seats were subject to recall petitions, -- ten seats held by Republicans and three by Democrats -- and three seats were successfully swung from Republican to Democrat, giving the Democrats a slender 17-16 majority as of July 2012. Regardless of the recent shift to Democratic control, the state Senate is not scheduled to be in session again until after the November elections, in January 2013. The Democrats are now fighting to defend their electoral gains in the wake of a controversial redistricting of the state's senate and assembly districts, which was forced through by the Republican majority under procedures that were challenged in court.

The races key to which party holds the majority in the state senate this coming year are attracting large outside advertising and other expenditures.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's (WDC's) Michael Buelow told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) that "outside group spending in legislative races is incomplete ... Many times we don't find out about certain electioneering activities -- be they mailers or broadcast ads -- until weeks after they have occurred."

That said, state records show that outside groups not coordinating with the candidates have most commonly purchased ads weighing in on three campaigns for Senate seats: in District 18 in Fond du Lac, where incumbent Sen. Jessica King (D), who won her seat in the first round of recall elections in 2011, is being challenged by Rick Gudex; in District 30 in Green Bay, where incumbent Sen. Dave Hansen (D), the Assistant Majority Leader since July 2012, is being challenged by John Macco (R); and in District 12 in Wausau, where Susan Sommer (D) and Rep. Tom Tiffany (R) (a current member of the Assembly) are running to replace retiring Senator Jim Holperin (D).

King vs. Gudex

As of August 16, 2012, the period for which the most recent campaign finance information is available from the state, City Councilman Rick Gudex's (R) campaign had raised $70,866.56 and spent $11,241.36. Incumbent state Senator Jessica King's (D) campaign had raised $59,165.25 and spent $11,739.27, according to WDC.

But outside groups are also making "independent expenditures" endorsing or opposing these candidates, or so-called "issue ads" designed to influence the electorate, and not all of this spending -- or the sources of the funds -- is required to be disclosed to the public under current law. Here is a snapshot of known spending in this race:

The business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is the state arm of the powerful business lobbying group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is largely funded by some of the biggest corporations in the world. WMC's associated 501(c)(4) non-profit group, the WMC Issues Mobilization Council (WMC IMC), has purchased two 30-second television ads attacking Sen. King. One of them (at left) accuses King of casting the deciding vote on a controversial mining bill in spring 2012 (the measure failed on a 17-16 Senate vote, with 16 Democrats and a Republican, Sen. Dale Schultz, voting against it.) The bill was criticized as a "sell out" to an out-of-state company, Gogebic Taconite, to limit Wisconsinites' rights regarding an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills south of Lake Superior.

WMC's ad features a mining union spokesman criticizing the legislature for its handing of the mining bill. One problem? The union spokesperson has said he supports King. WMC's political action committee, the Concerned Business & Industry PAC, also gave Gudex's campaign $1,000 in June. WMC's total expenditures are not known.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a special interest group pushing to privatize public schools and expand voucher programs and charter schools. AFC is chaired and funded by controversial right-wing funder Betsy DeVos, of the multi-billion dollar Amway fortune, and its lobbyist is former state Rep. Scott Jensen, who pleaded guilty to violating state ethics laws. AFC's "Super PAC," the AFC Action Fund Independent Expenditure Committee, has spent $114,448.00 supporting Gudex and $25,952.00 opposing King, as of October 29. Another arm of AFC, called AFC Action Fund Inc., also announced its intention to make expenditures against King, but its actual expenditures and funders is not known.

"Thunder in the Valley"Wisconsin Family Action (WFA) is a socially conservative group that opposes gay marriage and has opposed policies against bullying gay teens. It created a new corporate entity to make independent expenditures on behalf of Republican candidates in 2012, which has spent $6,683.17 to support Gudex or oppose King, as of October 31.

In addition, Tea Party groups in Fond du Lac and nearby -- whether organized as PACs, independent expenditure groups, 501(c)(4) groups, or other entities -- are actively involved in "directly affect[ing] the outcome of the election" for the White House and other offices, as one Facebook posting brags. For example, American Majority Action, a 501(c)(4) connected to Eric O'Keefe, has a "headquarters" in this part of the state and helped organize and promote an event, along with the Green Bay Tea Party, which featured Gudex and other candidates, called "Thunder in the Valley." It was also promoted through the John Birch Society online. Similarly, Gudex and other candidates were featured in the "United in Freedom Rally" that was put together by a Tea Party group called "United in Freedom PAC." The expenditures of these groups are unknown.

The Greater Wisconsin Political Fund (GWPF) and the similarly named Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund (GWPIEF) are arms of the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which backs Democratic and nonpartisan candidates for statewide office and the legislature. GWPF, which is known as a "527 corporation" under the IRS code, spent nearly $938,000 to support Democrats in state Assembly and state Senate races from late September to mid-October and purchased two ads attacking Gudex. GWPIEF spent $686,378 during September and October on ads to either support King or oppose Gudex, as of November 1.

The We Are Wisconsin Political Fund, an independent expenditure group that is an extension of the We Are Wisconsin Political Action Committee formed and funded by a coalition of labor unions, has sponsored a 30-second television ad in support of King. As of October 30, it had spent $136,573.69 to support King or oppose Gudex.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of WI, Inc. (PPAWI), a corporation created by the advocacy arm of the state's largest reproductive health care provider, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, in order to make independent expenditures announced its intent to make expenditures to support King, as did Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin's second independent expenditure corporation, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin Political Fund (PPAWPF). PPAWI has spent $1,728.25 in support of King, as of November 1. The amount spent by PPAWPF is unknown.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters Independent Expenditure Committee (WLCV) and Working America, a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, also registered to make expenditures in support of King, but the total spent is not known. WLCV has spent $32,422.48 in support of King. The amount spent by Working America is unknown.

Macco vs. Hansen

As of August, the campaign of John Macco (R), President of Macco Financial Group, had raised $41,869.80 and spent $32,528.44. Sen. Dave Hansen's (D) campaign had raised $38,888.41 and spent $8,068.16, according to WDC.

GWPIEF has spent $152,882.50 (one of their ads is at left) and We Are Wisconsin Political Fund spent $74,709.38 either in support of Hansen or in opposition to Macco.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of WI, Inc. has spent $1,941.86 in support of Hansen, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin Political Fund has announced it intent to make expenditures in his support as well, although the amount it has spent is unknown. WLCV also registered to make expenditures in support of Hansen, but the amount it has spent is unknown.

Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG), a state arm of the far right-wing national special interest group, the Club for Growth, purchased a 30-second television ad attacking Hansen. The total spent by WCFG is not known.

The anti-gay group WFA has disclosed that it has spent $2,636.87 in opposition to Hansen. The AFC Action Fund Inc. has announced its intention to make expenditures against Hansen.

Citizens for a Strong America, which as CMD first reported is a shadowy group funded by unknown sources and run by John Connors, an operative who also works for David Koch's American for Prosperity, has sponsored mailings attacking Hansen, but its donors and total expenditures related to this race and others in the state are not known.

Sommer vs. Tiffany

As of August, current Assembly Representative Tom Tiffany's (R) campaign for the District 12 Senate seat had raised $114,360.34 and spent $20,198.48. Former prosecutor Susan Sommer's (D) campaign had raised $4,540.00 and spent $2,444.00, according to WDC.

WMC IMC sponsored a 30-second ad (at right) in mid-September attacking Sommer, but its total expenditures are not known.

Additionally, CORN PAC, a political action committee run by the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, announced its intention to make expenditures supporting Tiffany.

Behind the Veil

This spending shows that generally special interest groups are raising and spending much more than the candidates for office, who have limits under Wisconsin law on how large a donation they can accept. However, WDC's Buelow told CMD, "Outside groups generally spend more on legislative races than what we've seen this season ... and the tremendous attention to the U.S. Senate and presidential contests have diverted a lot of money that might have been spent on the legislative races this year."

But the money disclosed to WDC is only the tip of the iceberg because "issue group" ads and other activities that are framed as purely educational or designed to "get out the vote" without expressly endorsing a candidate are not captured under current public disclosure rules, especially with the dramatic changes in the electoral battlefield as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and related cases. These decisions have left the public in the dark about much of the money being spent and who is really bankrolling the fight to win these and other seats.