By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
It’s still several weeks before the general elections, with big bucks yet to flow, but already Wisconsin’s recall-o-rama is awash in campaign cash — and at least one record will surely fall.
From Jan. 1, 2009 to June 30, 2011, recall target state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, raised $1.04 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. State Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, also facing a recall challenge, raised $738,226 during the same period.
Both candidates have spent more than $600,000 already. The spending record for a state Senate candidate in Wisconsin is $722,333, set in 2008 by Milwaukee Democrat Sheldon Wasserman. He lost — to Alberta Darling, the up-and-coming spending champ.
“It’s clear that Alberta Darling will end up setting a record for spending by a candidate in a state Senate election,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
What’s makes this even more “astonishing,” he adds, is that most of the money was raised since late February and March, when the recall drives began, not in a full four-year election cycle.
In all, the six incumbent state senators facing general recall elections on Aug. 9 raised more than $2.3 million in the first six months of this year, compared to just over $1.5 million for their six post-primary Democratic challengers, according to campaign filings with the state Government Accountability Board.
And the three Democrats facing recall elections on July 19 and Aug. 16 have raised more than $900,000 overall, compared to about $150,000 for their GOP challengers.
But it is Alberta Darling who is out in front, setting the pace.
Through July 10, according to the GAB, Darling had raised a total of $969,168 — so far this year. This came from 7,789 contributions averaging $124 each.
Darling received 157 $1,000 contributions, as well as 56 contributions of more than $1,000. Normally, $1,000 is the most individuals can give to state Senate campaigns, but this limit does not apply to money raised for recall elections. These funds beyond the regular contribution limits, says GAB spokesman Reid Magney, “can only be used for recall-related expenses,” like legal challenges, not for campaign ads.
Darling’s opponent, state Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, has raised $437,302 as of July 10, according to the GAB. This is less than half Darling’s total, but hardly a trifling amount.
In fact, if Pasch spends as much as she’s already raised, it’s a safe bet she’ll top the highest state Senate spender of 2010. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, spent $408,053 in that election, beating Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, the second-highest spender at $284,088.
Pasch’s contributions are extraordinary for another reason. They come from an eye-popping 11,036 individual contributions, through July 10, according to the GAB website.
Of these, 6,454 were for $10 or less, including 884 $1 contributions. Pasch’s latest campaign filing fills 600 pages. Her average contribution is $39.63, less than a third that of Darling. At the $3 and under level, Pasch had 82 times as many contributions as Darling (2,367 to 29).
Pasch’s campaign did not respond to phone messages but McCabe explains that these micro-donations to Pasch and other Democrats are largely from ActBlue, a Massachusetts-based online fundraising apparatus for Democratic candidates.
ActBlue’s webpage says it has raised more than $1 million for Democratic Senate candidates in Wisconsin, including more than $90,000 for Pasch as of July 14. The money comes in through fundraising campaigns by Take Back Wisconsin! and other groups.
In a press release, Pasch’s campaign crows about her “grassroots donations” and “strong showing of district-wide support.” It doesn’t mention that many of these smaller contributions come from out of state, from people who see Wisconsin’s recall elections as nationally significant.
Indeed, the GAB site numbers show that 5,005 of Pasch’s 11,036 contributions through July 10 are from other states. These add up to $44,748, or just over 10 percent of Pasch’s $437,302 total. Darling raised just $27,431 from out of state, or 2.8 percent of her $969,168 total.
Of course, the result of all this fundraising, and the millions of dollars that special interests toss into the mix, will be an endless stream of mailings, fliers, radio ads and, above all, TV commercials — all meant to enlighten voters as to which candidates are by far the worst.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight.org, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.