By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
By now, the people of Wisconsin are well aware what happens when elections loom: saturation television ads and robocalls at a frequency that constitutes actual harassment. The groundwork for these onslaughts is being laid now, in fundraising letters to potential donors, typically conveying a sense of extreme urgency and danger.
“Our opponents know my campaign is strong,” reads one such letter, from Tammy Baldwin, a Democratic congresswoman running for U.S. Senate. “They’ve seen the polls that show I have support from people across the political spectrum, left, right and center.
“And so they’re trying to destroy my campaign with (a) massive smear effort.”
Yikes. How much do you need?
Baldwin suggests giving $35, $50 or even $100, to beat back the threat from “right-wing special interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads that can spend millions of dollars on a negative ad campaign without even breaking a sweat.”
Despite these partisan references, the mechanics of the fundraising letter transcend political boundaries. The themes of good vs. evil, us against them, grassroots support compared to outside special interests, are staples of the medium.
Consider these claims from a recent fundraising letter by Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s embattled Republican governor, to potential givers in other states:
“Conservatives are under attack in Wisconsin and that means … There’s BIG TROUBLE AHEAD where you live. If the powerful labor unions get their way in my state … They’ll get their way in yours.”
Yikes. How much do you need?
At last accounting, in January, Walker had raised $12.2 million in just over a year, nearly half from outside Wisconsin. But that’s not something he highlights in his pitch to potential out-of-state donors. Instead, he stresses his foes’ out-of-state ties, saying “thousands of Big Labor protesters, many bused in from Chicago and Las Vegas, buzzed around the state Capitol like angry wasps.”
Walker: “I need you to stand up for democracy and for conservative stewardship, and I hope you’ll honor me with a ‘Friends of Scott Walker’ contribution for $25, $100, $500, $1,000 or more today.”
Baldwin, in turn, has reportedly raised $4.5 million, including just over $2 million in the first three months of this year. That means she’s doing about as well as her four potential GOP challengers — Tommy Thompson, Mark Neumann, Eric Hovde and Jeff Fitzgerald — combined.
You’d think that might lessen the urgency of Baldwin’s need to raise cash. You’d be wrong. Her detractors, she says, are “trying to silence my progressive voice by destroying my 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate. They don’t want me in the Senate because they know I’m not afraid to take on the powers-that-be in Washington.”
There’s nothing the other side hates worse than virtue, as Scott Walker is well aware.
“I stood up for the everyday citizens who follow the rules and make America work,” he asserts in his letter. This has enraged the “Big Labor Bosses,” as well as the “union-paid protesters who screamed until their faces were red and painted signs filled with hate-filled threats and profane words.”
Tammy Baldwin must know how he feels. “For as long as I can remember, the Republicans and their allies on the far right have been holding me up as the ultimate symbol of America’s moral decline. They use me as a lightning rod to rally their supporters. And they come after me with every kind of personal attack you can imagine.”
It’s not easy being a politician these days; that’s a true fact. Let’s hope all those donation-bearing self-addressed envelopes — Walker’s is postage-paid, Baldwin’s needs a stamp — help ease the pain.
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, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 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.