The matriarch of the billionaire Chicago Cubs-owning family, an heir to the Schlitz Beer fortune, and the wealthiest self-made woman in America were just a few of the people who poured millions of dollars into Wisconsin political party coffers during the 2018 election year, according to an investigation of campaign finance records by The Badger Project.
A landmark court decision in 2014 and drastic changes to Wisconsin campaign finance law in 2015 removed limits on ultrarich donors, allowing big money to go to candidates while avoiding state restrictions on direct contributions.
Voters saw their airwaves and mailboxes swamped with political ads in the lead-up to last year’s November election.
“It’s negative attack ads and it’s nonstop,” said state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who has introduced a campaign finance reform bill. “Coming into their mailboxes; it’s coming on their TV. It’s on the radio. (Candidates) aren’t talking about themselves. Other people are out there talking about the people running for office.”
Overwhelmed voters likely have that 2015 law change to thank.
That year, the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker made many tweaks to campaign finance law, including doubling the amount of direct donations an individual can make to a candidate, and effectively removing limits on individuals donating to parties and on parties donating to candidates.
The Republican leaders who introduced that bill, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Before the changes, Wisconsin restricted an individual’s total political donations to $10,000 per year. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits like those in the 2014 case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Wisconsin courts applied the federal ruling here and the state Legislature deleted the $10,000 limit from state law.
Limits on party donations to candidates also were eliminated. And Wisconsin has never limited donations to political parties, said Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison-based attorney who specializes in campaign finance and other political areas.
The combination of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision to strike down aggregate limits and the Legislature’s 2015 changes to campaign finance opened the floodgates for unlimited sums of cash to flow to candidates through political parties.
“Now the sky’s the limit, and some of these big donors are reaching the sky with their donations,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state.
While Wisconsin law allows one person to give a maximum of $20,000 per campaign cycle to a candidate for statewide office like governor or attorney general, anyone can write a million-dollar check to a state political party. And a few did.
Who’s cutting the big checks
Diane Hendricks, the Beloit-area owner of ABC Supply Co. and the wealthiest self-made woman in America according to Forbes, gave more than $2 million to the Republican Party of Wisconsin in 2018, The Badger Project found. That’s the most of any individual donor to state political parties last year.
Marlene Ricketts, maternal head of the billionaire family who owns the Chicago Cubs, and Liz Uihlein, one-half of a wealthy, conservative Chicago couple who have a home in Manitowish Waters, each gave $1 million to the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl led the pack, donating nearly $450,000 to the state Democratic Party last year, The Badger Project found. Lynde Uihlein, a frequent liberal donor, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, and a distant relative to Liz Uihlein’s husband Dick Uihlein, gave $340,000.
In total, 22 people gave $100,000 or more to political parties in Wisconsin in 2018, most to the state GOP.
Political action committees, also limited in what they can donate to candidates, took advantage of the lack of limits to parties too. The PACs for Charter Communications ($65,000), WEC Energy Group ($45,000), and the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association ($42,000) all donated to the state Republican Party, while the PACs for former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee ($45,000) and the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters ($46,000) both donated to the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
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That big money found its way to races across the state, including at the top in the hard-fought election for governor and all the way down the ballot to swing districts in the state Senate and Assembly.
In a losing effort, Gov. Scott Walker received more than $5 million from the Wisconsin GOP, while the eventual winner Tony Evers got more than $700,000 from the state Democratic Party.
Candidates for state Senate and Assembly — both part-time jobs that pay $53,000 annually — are limited to receiving a maximum donation from individuals and PACs of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. But parties now can give them unlimited cash infusions.
Democrats gave nearly $400,000 to Caleb Frostman in 2018, helping him win a June special election for state Senate seat in Door County before he was defeated months later in the fall general election. State Rep. Jon Plumer, R-Lodi, and Ann Groves Lloyd both got more than $300,000 from their parties in their races — a special election in June and a rematch in November — both won by Plumer. Frostman’s challenger in both elections, then-state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, received nearly $300,00 from the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.
The list goes on.
“It makes a mockery of the limits on direct contributions from donors to candidates, since donors can now launder 10 times or 100 times those limits through the parties,” Rothschild said.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the aggregate limit is unconstitutional, the high court and other courts regularly have upheld limits to candidates and political parties.
That means Wisconsin could apply limits here.
State Democrats, the minority party in both houses of the Legislature for the past decade, have introduced a bill that would apply the limits on individual donors to the parties. So an individual would be limited in how much they gave to a political party, and a party could only donate $20,000 to a statewide candidate like governor or $2,000 to a candidate for state Senate.
The law could close the pipeline of unlimited cash to and from the political parties.
But some question if these type of reforms do what proponents say they will.
Campaign finance reform in the last 40 years has “largely been one large lesson in unintended consequences,” said Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal foundation.
“The history of campaign finance reform has been a little bit like playing whack-a-mole with an endless supply of moles,” Esenberg said, noting he was not the first to make that analogy.
Reform like what Wisconsin Democrats want to do has led to the rise of self-funded, millionaire candidates, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, single issue-advocacy organizations such as the NRA and Planned Parenthood, and the relative decline of political party power and the voices of the candidates, Esenberg said.
“I don’t think those are particularly good things,” Esenberg said.
All those developments have yielded more polarization in politics, he argued. But empowering the parties to have greater control in the political process as institutional actors could be a moderating factor, Esenberg said. He noted how the institutional Republican Party initially did not want Donald Trump, a relatively unpopular and divisive politician, to be its candidate for president, but could not prevent it.
Either way, Sargent’s bill has little chance of passage while Democrats are in the minority. Until limits are placed on state political parties, donors can avoid contribution limits and send unlimited amounts of cash through them to whichever candidate the parties choose.