Citizens United Unleashed in Wisconsin Recall
Recent campaign filings show Governor Scott Walker raising over $30 million to defend himself against recall versus $3.1 million raised by his challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Barrett is being outspent 12:1, but even these numbers do not account for the full amount of spending in the race. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, an array of outside groups are playing a major role in elections and Wisconsin is no exception.
Wisconsin's historic recall battle may be seen as a test of grassroots gumption (30,000 volunteers collected close to one million recall signatures) against big outside money in a post-Citizen's United world. With less than a week before the election, spending numbers regarding these outside interest groups are changing by the hour. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) is working hard to track the money and illuminate exactly how high the spending outside of the candidates will go. Right now, WDC pegs total spending in the race at $62 million, including at least $21.4 million in disclosed spending by outside groups in addition to an estimated $7.5 million in undisclosed spending on so-called "issue ads" designed to influence the election.
Here is a brief look at the five biggest outside interest groups spending in Wisconsin's 2012 recall.
Republican Governors Association Claims "Just the Facts"
The Republican Governors Association (RGA)'s Political Action Committee "Right Direction Wisconsin" (RGA-RDW) has been the biggest outside spender in this year's recall election. WDC reports that the group has spent $8.6 million since January 2012 with almost all of their spending going towards TV ads. RGA-RDW considers these ads to to be "issue ads" and so does not file any disclosure about the donors whose funds make the ad buys possible. The RGA also operates a "527" group, which does disclose its donors to the IRS, and this may eventually provide some insight into the money behind RGA's messages.
In late March, RGA-RDW ran three ads, one attacking Barrett, one attacking his main primary challenger Kathleen Falk, and one attacking both Barrett and Falk for their records as Milwaukee Mayor and Dane County Executive, respectively. Two weeks before the primary, the group sponsored another ad against Barrett, and after the May 8 primary, it ran three ads (here, here, and here) criticizing Barrett and praising Walker. One of RGA-RDW's most widely circulated ads, embedded above, claims to be all about the facts, but it omits key facts, such as the fact that unemployment rose 34 percent under Scott Walker during his term as Milwaukee County Executive, and it omits information about Wisconsin being ranked 50th out of 50 states in the nation on jobs.
Koch money is the RGA's top source for contributions in the 2012 election cycle, with the corporation's co-owner David Koch donating at least $2 million and the company itself giving $25,000. In 2010, the RGA spent $3.4 million to help get Walker elected, with $1 million in help from David Koch and another $50,000 from Koch Industries for RGA to spend among the gubernatorial candidates it was backing, including Walker. In addition, Koch Industries PAC was one of the largest contributors to Walker's campaign for office in 2010.
In contrast, the Democratic Governors Association is not directly running ads in Wisconsin, but is reportedly funding the Greater Wisconsin Committee, spending $1 million.
Greater Wisconsin Committee Charges that Walker Has "Deceived and Divided"
The Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC) is the only outside interest group in the top five spenders that is supporting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. WDC estimates that the group has increased its spending dramatically in the week before the recall, having spent $6 million as of May 30. Almost all of its spending has reportedly been for television advertisements. Large Wisconsin labor unions are also known funders of GWC.
GWC is organized as a PAC and a 527 organization, and also has a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Starting in December, as Walker's opponents gathered signatures to trigger a recall election, GWC ran three versions of an ad featuring interviews with teachers and parents saying Walker cut nearly a billion dollars in funding to schools at the same time as giving out tax breaks to special interests like corporations. GWC also criticized Walker on his cuts to education in a more recent ad, and also hit him on the ongoing John Doe criminal probe into corruption which has resulted in indictments or immunity agreements of some of his closest employees and allies during his time as Milwaukee County Executive.
Americans for Prosperity Insists that "It's Working"
The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which David Koch chairs, has been enormously influential in the 2012 recall, but the organization claims its efforts have nothing to do with the Wisconsin campaigns or elections, even as it launches an expensive bus-tour timed to end election day. The AFP buses are wrapped in advertising that echo the Walker administration's claims about the state economy.
This spring, Koch told the Palm Beach Press "we are doing a lot for Walker and we will do more," which many took as referring to the activities of his AFP operations. Since November, with petitions circulating to recall Walker, AFP has staged an aggressive pro-Walker campaign while claiming to be focused merely on promoting Walker's reforms rather than on helping the candidate himself or helping Walker win the recall election.
AFP has been one of Walker's strongest allies since he was running for the governor's office, featuring him at a major AFP event, and strongly backing him as he forced through his legislation to limit collective bargaining in February of 2011. During that time, AFP also launched an ad campaign urging people to "Stand with Walker," along with yard signs emblazoned with those words. The "Stand with Walker" theme has also been advanced by the governor's campaign. Since Koch's interview in Palm Beach, AFP has expanded its efforts beyond the "It's Working" TV ads to include a bus tour in the last few days before the election.
"We're not dealing with any candidates, political parties or ongoing races," asserted Luke Hilgemann, the director of AFP's Wisconsin operations, about AFP's four-day, ten-city bus tour taking place right before Wisconsin's June 5 election. "We're just educating folks on the importance of the reforms," he claimed. Reportedly, 70 AFP staffers and organizers are working on activities related to the group's claims in advance of the election.
Just as Governor Walker's opponents started collecting recall signatures in November 2011, AFP ran TV and web ads claiming "It's Working!" and alleging that Walker's fiscal policies have been good for the state while ignoring the bad news. AFP's ad campaign has reportedly cost at least $2.9 million -- nearly as much as Walker's opponent Tom Barrett has raised himself.
The "It's Working" ads come from the "charitable" side of AFP -- the AFP Foundation -- which as a charity organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, has an absolute prohibition against intervening in political campaigns. The ads were produced in collaboration with another 501(c)(3), the Bradley Foundation-funded MacIver Institute, which has the same prohibition. As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the ads push the envelope on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules about nonprofit participation in political campaigns, never mentioning Walker or the election but advancing a message consistent with Walker's electoral strategy. Accordingly, WDC has filed a complaint with the IRS about the "It's Working" ads, noting the parallels between the AFP-MacIver ads and the Walker campaign's claims.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Says Things Are "Looking Up"
The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is a state chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and WMC has spent at least $2 million influencing the recall. It also has a long history of supporting right-wing politicians and causes. Like the national Chamber of Commerce, it is organized as a 501(c)6, but it also controls a 501(c)4 (the "WMC Issues Council"), which is the source of most of the WMC's ads. WMC does not disclose its donors.
WMC's ads have repeated Walker's theme that under his policies the state has been creating jobs. However, their numbers disagree with Walker's. The WMC ad embedded here claims that 15,000 jobs were created in the past year, while Walker claims in his latest TV ads to have created 33,2000. Both numbers contradict official estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which indicate that Wisconsin lost 21,400 jobs from April 2011 to April 2012.
The National Rifle Association Asks Listeners to "Think Again"
The National Rifle Association (NRA) became involved in the recall election after the May 8 primary, and WDC estimates that the NRA has spent at least $800,000 as of May 30th through its registered PAC, the National Rifle Association of America (NRA-NRAA). The ad buys include radio, TV, and nearly omnipresent web banner ads.
Among the ads the NRA-NRAA has sponsored is a radio ad titled "Think Again" that alleges Barrett voted to restrict access to deer rifles during his time in Congress. The claim has been widely criticized and actually refers to Barrett's 1994 vote in Congress for the assault weapons ban, a bipartisan federal law that was supported by Republican leaders Ronald Reagan and Rudy Guliani, and others who recognized that semi-automatic assault weapons designed to kill people are hardly the deer-hunting weapons of choice for America's game hunters.
Walker recently spoke at the NRA national convention in St. Louis, Missouri where he asked for "help" and "support" in his upcoming recall election. He also received an award for "outstanding leadership and achievement on behalf of NRA members and gun owners" for signing legislation to allow people to carry concealed firearms and a bill inspired by the NRA-backed "Stand Your Ground" law that was cited initially to prevent the arrest of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Both bills advance the gun agenda of the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been documented by the Center for Media and Democracy.
"Ending Spending" Picks Up Walker Campaign Slogan: "Forward"
The Ending Spending Action Fund spent around $245,000 on a pro-Walker ad buy in early May, according to WDC. The group is associated with conservative financier and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, who recently came under fire by the New York Times for considering a plan to spend $10 million on racially-charged ads attacking President Barack Obama.
In contrast with the negative ads planned for Obama, Ricketts and his Ending Spending Action Fund took a positive route with Walker. The feel-good ad echoes the Walker campaign's claims about the value of his limits on collective bargaining rights and education cuts, and even echo's Walker's claims to be moving Wisconsin "forward" (the same term used as proof of President Obama's supposed communist sympathies when he adopted it as his campaign slogan).
Ricketts is also one of Walker's top donors, giving at least $100,000 directly to the recall campaign on January 24th, 2012.
Final Count, or More to Come?
The WDC's latest figures indicate that most of the outside spending has favored Walker and the Republicans. Millions more will likely be spent in the final five days before the June 5 recall election.