By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigatuve Journalism
A few weeks back, I did Joe Kallas a grave injustice. I declared that he did not exist.
The oversight was unintentional. The lists I consulted at that time showed that Tom Petri, the Republican congressman representing Wisconsin’s 6th District, had no Democratic challenger in the fall election. And so my column said Petri’s opposition consisted of “an unfunded primary challenger and nonexistent Democrat.”
Turns out I was wrong. Joe Kallas does exist. The resident of Princeton in Green Lake County didn’t appear on candidate lists because he hadn’t yet raised or spent at least $5,000, the threshold for mandatory reporting to the Federal Elections Commission.
Kallas, a former farmer and educator who has served on the local town and county boards, is understandably frustrated about being overlooked.
“Everybody always says, ‘We need to get all this money out of politics,’ ” laments Kallas, who ran against Petri before, in 2010. “And then when somebody comes along and is raising only a few thousand dollars, it’s ‘Well, you’re not running a real campaign.’ ”
In the last election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the House of Representatives candidate who spent most won85 percent of the time, actually the lowest it’s been since 1970. And the disadvantages are magnified when the spending gap is huge.
Petri, who was first elected to Congress in 1979 and has run without opposition several times, raised and spent just over $700,000 during the last election cycle. Kallas raised and spent about $7,000, according to the FEC.
Petri won with 71 percent of the vote.
In the current election cycle, Petri has already spentmore than $600,000 and still has $930,000 on hand. He trounced his GOP primary opponent on Aug. 14, getting 82 percent of the vote. Kallas, meanwhile, considers the $800 he raked in at a recent fundraising event “pretty good.”
Petri, in an interview, puts a positive spin on his fundraising edge: “I’d like to think that if you’re doing a good job, you will end up with support and those numbers reflect that.” He denies that his large outlays mean he is waging elaborate campaigns.
“It costs money to operate the office and fill out all these forms,” Petri says. “We haven’t spent anything really this year on the fall election.”
But if the polling he can afford shows the race is close, Petri will be able to vastly outspend his opponent. Kallas knows this is the case, but insists he has a chance to win: “On occasion, truth, honesty and ideas do win out over money.”
Kallas ticks off reasons to be optimistic:
His loss in 2010 was no surprise, amid a GOP tsunami so strong it even blew Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold out of office. Kallas has greater name recognition from that prior run. Redistricting improved his chances by adding urban areas like Portage. People are fed up with Congress, especially long-term incumbents. And the effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, though failed, was “a huge shot in the arm” for Democrats, by energizing their base.
“The climate is totally different,” Kallas says. Everywhere he goes, “People come up to me and thank me for running.”
The key to winning, he believes, is to educate voters about Petri’s record, including his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deregulation of the banking industry and the austerity budget pushed by fellow Republican Paul Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee. But that’s hard to do without money, or when the media act as though you don’t exist.
Petri shrugs off criticisms of individual votes, saying “I’ve done my best overall to represent the district, and of course that’s a judgment the voters will have to make in the fall.”
He’s right: Voters have the final say. But along the way, money may do some of the talking.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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