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Outside groups spent record $93M on Wisconsin elections during 2022 midterms

Outside spending on the fall midterm increased 50 percent compared to 2018

Evers campaign stop
A supporter holds a sign for Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers during a campaign stop in Superior on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Outside groups poured $93 million into trying to elect candidates for state office this fall, according to a report from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

That once again shattered a record for a Wisconsin midterm race.

The latest total is a 50 percent increase compared to the previous record of $61.86 million spent on Wisconsin’s 2018 midterm elections.

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The analysis includes spending on Wisconsin’s races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer, though the vast majority of this year’s spending by outside groups — a whopping $78.9 million— related to the race for governor between Democratic incumbent Tony Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels.

Spending on races to represent Wisconsin the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives was not included in the latest report. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is a nonprofit that tracks money in politics and advocates for campaign finance reform.

Wisconsin has seen ‘astronomical’ rise in outside spending since 2010

The group’s executive director Matt Rothschild described Wisconsin’s rise in outside spending as “astronomical” and said legal changes like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision have fueled the trend. This year’s outside spending total is a nearly five-fold increase compared to the $18.9 million tallied in 2010.

“Every time there’s a race in Wisconsin, it seems a new record for outside spending is broken, and it’s just the sky’s the limit,” he said. “Right now, we’re out here in the wild, wild West.”

This graph shows how much outside groups spend on Wisconsin statewide elections during midterm years since 2010, as estimated by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Courtesy/Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

In Wisconsin’s 2022 midterms, 35 groups spent $48.25 million to benefit Republicans while 36 groups spent $44.06 million to benefit Democrats, according to the preliminary analysis. An independent group also spent $686,660 on the governor’s race.

The totals include about $60 million spent on express advocacy, meaning ads that explicitly tell Wisconsinites who to vote for. Such groups need to report those independent expenditures to the state.

Also included is $33 million that funded so-called “issue ads,” in which groups can spend unlimited amounts to boost or attack candidates, as long as the ads don’t use phrases like “vote for” or “vote against.”

But, since spending on issue ads is difficult to track, that $33 million estimate is a conservative one, Rothschild said.

Campaign finance reform advocate: Outside spending amplifies voices of the super-rich

The top outside spender this fall was the Democratic Governors Association, which poured more than $20.1 million into television ads that hit Michels on issues ranging from abortion rights to guns to sexual harassment complaints filed by women at his family’s construction company.

Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association was the second-biggest spender. The association used three entities to pour $15.3 million total into ads attacking Evers, the report found.

Outside groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts on elections and aren’t subject to many of the restrictions limiting contributions to a candidate’s campaign committee. That’s part of why Rothschild is alarmed by the groups’ ballooning influence.

“The spending by outside groups is funded by super rich folks, and they can drown out the views of folks who aren’t super rich,” Rothschild said. “Not many of the people who are listening to this interview are going to be able to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to give to these groups that are spending millions upon millions to, you know, splash mud all over our screens during election time.”

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign plans to release a final report early next year, with updated numbers on Wisconsin’s legislative and statewide elections, once candidates and groups file their required year-end campaign finance reports.