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Expert: Large Contributions In Local Races Could Set Spending Precedent In Elections

Group Mostly Funded By Milwaukee County Official Spent More Than $500K In Local Races

Person voting
Steven Senne/AP Photo

A new group spending thousands on southeastern Wisconsin political races has some experts wondering about the future of spending in local elections.

Leadership MKE, mostly funded by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, reported year-to-date contributions of $790,000 from Abele in its most recent financial reporting.

The candidates backed by the group are seeking to unseat supervisors who have opposed Abele in the past.

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Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says it’s unusual to see such targeted efforts at the local level.

“We have a relatively deep-pockets donor who is funding Leadership MKE, so usually it is the case that there isn’t somebody with as many resources to invest in these kinds of elections,” Dolan said.

Still, it would be hard to measure the impact of Leadership MKE’s spending on these races, says Dolan, but if Abele’s picks oust current board supervisors, it could encourage similar efforts in the future.

“The narrative that comes up whether those people win or lose will be important, whether it’s factually borne out by data, the narrative that develops after tomorrow will be important to determining whether these sorts of efforts continue.”

Dolan said if Abele’s gamble is successful, it could encourage similar out-of-state contributions.

But UW-Milwaukee professor Mordecai Lee says grassroots political groups could help counter this new effort.

“They don’t particularly have a lot of money but they have volunteers, they have campaign energy, they have a kind of cohesive perspective on who they would like to see elected, who not elected and they give endorsement,” he said.

Leadership MKE has spent more than half a million dollars on county board, school board and village races.