Citizens United in Wisconsin: a decade of disaster

Citizens United protesters
Jan 21, 2014 protest of Citizens United Decision on the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision. (photo by Tuaussi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on January 21, 2010 has had a powerful – and profoundly negative – effect on Wisconsin politics.

Spending in Wisconsin state elections by outside special interest groups has skyrocketed over the last decade as a result of this decision.

In its 5-4 decision in Citizens United, the conservative majority ruled that corporations and other outside special interest groups can spend unlimited amounts of money to back candidates so long as they don’t coordinate their expenditures with those candidates.

To gauge the effect of Citizens United in Wisconsin, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign took a look at how spending by independent expenditure groups – those that expressly tell people who to vote for or against – has gone up in the last decade. All told, it increased five-fold in the 10 years since this decision. And in races for governor and attorney general, it has leaped much higher than that.

Between January 2010 and December 2019 independent expenditure groups doled out $78.2 million in regular spring and fall elections compared to about $15 million they spent on regular spring and fall elections between January 2000 and December 2009.

Chart of escalating independent expenditures
Chart courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

The $78.2 million spent between 2010 and 2019 does not include more than $46 million spent on independent expenditures in the unprecedented 2011 and 2012 recall races. The figures also do not include the millions of dollars spent by secretive phony issue ad groups, which do not have to disclose their spending. Phony issue ad spending also continued to increase over the past 10 years, in part because of Citizens United and a prior Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, in 2007.

One problem with this surge in outside spending is that it drowns out the message of the candidates themselves. These groups have been outspending the candidates in some races. For example:

  • In the 2018 attorney general’s race independent expenditure groups doled out more than $5.3 million compared to nearly $5 million spent by Republican incumbent Brad Schimel and Democratic challenger Josh Kaul;
  • In the 2018 1st Senate District race independent expenditure groups spent $1.5 million compared to about $825,300 spent by incumbent Democrat Caleb Frostman and Republican challenger Andre Jacque;
  • In the 2016 18th Senate District race for an open seat independent expenditure groups spent more than $1.1 million compared to $1 million spent by Democrat Mark Harris and Republican Dan Feyen;
  • In the 2016 12th Senate District contest independent expenditure groups spent $525,360 compared to about $439,100 by incumbent Republican Tom Tiffany and Democratic challenger Bryan Van Stippen;
  • In the 2012 18th Senate District race independent expenditure groups spent nearly $1.1 million compared to about $590,800 by incumbent Democrat Jessica King and Republican challenger Rick Gudex.

Another problem is that these post-Citizens United electioneering groups are mostly funded by wealthy out-of-state individuals, corporations, and unions that are not in tune with the needs of Wisconsin constituents.

Nowhere is the surge in independent expenditures and out-of-state interference more evident than in Wisconsin’s governor’s races. Independent expenditures in regular, fall governor’s races surged 17-fold from nearly $1.4 million in 2002 to a record $24.7 million in 2018.

chart of expenditures on governors' races
Chart courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

The races for state attorney general have seen the same sharp increases in independent expenditures in elections after Citizens United. Independent expenditures in state attorney general races ranged from about $2,300 in 2002 to a record $5.3 million in 2018.

Expenditures in attorney generals' races
Chart courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Independent expenditures in legislative races as a whole increased nearly 150% from the decade preceding Citizens United. From January 2010 through 2019, independent expenditures in regular, fall legislative races totaled $21.8 million, led with a record $6.7 million spent in 2018. That compared to $8.8 million spent on independent expenditures in regular, fall legislative elections from January 2000 through 2009.

chart of expenditures in legislative races
Chart courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Nineteen special interest groups have spent more than $2 million on independent expenditures or phony issue ads or both since the beginning of 2010. The top spenders are:

Greater Wisconsin Committee, $40.8 million, to support Democratic and liberal candidates in legislative and statewide elections.  The group discloses little about its fundraising but gets the bulk of its cash from labor unions and Democratic ideological groups, like the Democratic Governors Association, that are also supported by wealthy business interests. Greater Wisconsin operates a political action committee, corporation, issue ad group and a 527 organization;

Republican Governors Association, $29.5 million, to support former GOP Gov. Scott Walker. The group, which spends tens of millions of dollars to elect Republican governors across the country, used ACC Wisconsin PAC and Right Direction Wisconsin PAC to sponsor its Wisconsin electioneering activities. The group raises much of its money from wealthy individual and corporate special interests using a 527 organization;

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), $25.1 million, the state’s largest business organization generally supports Republican and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices with undisclosed issue ad spending and independent expenditures. Like the top two electioneering groups, WMC spends much of its electioneering budget on negative broadcast ads.

This report originally appeared on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign website