Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans rode to victory in the Nov. 4 elections because they got more votes. Period.
Redistricting may have produced fewer competitive districts. But unlike 2012, when the GOP won big despite getting fewer overall votes, this time the party maintained its 5-3 edge in Congress and tightened its control of both legislative houses by dominating turnout.
But money and redistricting did play a huge, perhaps decisive role. How huge? Consider the state’s races for Congress.
In the two-year funding cycle that began Jan. 1, 2013, Wisconsin’s House candidates raised $21.4 million, a new record. And that was just as of Oct. 15, with nearly three weeks to go.
None of the state’s eight congressional districts were considered competitive, and all were won by double-digit margins. The seven incumbents, all re-elected, were awash in cash, whether they needed it or not. They had collectively raised $17.2 million by this date, compared to $1.5 million by their general election challengers.
In the costliest contest, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan had raised $8.8 million and spent $7.3 million; his Democratic challenger, Rob Zerban, raised and spent less than $700,000. Ryan won easily.
In the one open seat, Republican victor Glenn Grothman had a four-fold funding advantage over Democrat Mark Harris, $881,000 to $218,000. Grothman won easily.
In Wisconsin’s marquee race for governor, Republican incumbent Scott Walker’s campaign raised about $26 million from the time that Democrat Mary Burke entered the race in October 2013, including reported late contributions. Burke’s campaign raised about $16 million, including $5 million from herself.
Including outside group spending, the total will likely top $60 million. That’s more than the estimated $37 million spent in 2010, when Walker was first elected, but less than the estimated $81 million lavished on the 2012 recall election.
Walker and Burke were each buoyed by about $12 million in TV ads in the campaign’s final stretch, according to what appear to be conservative estimates by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. The candidates’ own campaigns accounted for more than 60 percent of these sums.
But in the ad wars for state attorney general, the candidates were overshadowed by outside groups, according to CPI. The lobby group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce ran an estimated $1.5 million in issue ads backing Republican Brad Schimel, the victor, who aired about $250,000 in ads. Democrat Susan Happ’s supporters ran an estimated $700,000 in ads, compared to her $450,000.
WMC also bought an estimated $637,000 in ads backing Republican Howard Marklein for state Senate, three times as much as Marklein himself. Democrat Pat Bomhack ran no TV ads, with outside groups devoting about $180,000 to his cause. Marklein won.
In another key Senate race, Republican Roger Roth and his supporters aired about $500,000 in ads, twice as much as for his rival, Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber. The First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund, a national conservative political group, led the spending with about $200,000 in anti-Schaber ads. Roth won.
The election unseated three Assembly Democrats, including Mandy Wright of Wausau, featured in a recent column on fundraisers. Wright lost to GOP challenger Dave Heaton by a mere 86 votes in unofficial results. A recount is possible.
Through July 28, Wright had reportedly raised about $74,000, three times as much as Heaton. So was this a case where a challenger won despite being dramatically outspent? Not quite.
Records show that legislative Republicans and others funneled tens of thousands of dollars into Heaton’s coffers in the campaign’s final weeks, pushing his total past $100,000, to where it nearly matched hers. And an outside group that supports public funds for private schools invested another $148,000 attacking Wright and backing Heaton.
Did money decide this race, or any race? Of course not. Voters did. But money was not irrelevant.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.