Outsiders set new political spending record, focusing mainly on governor’s race

By: - December 5, 2022 2:26 pm
hat saying vote with piles of cash money

Campaign cash (Getty Images creative)

Outside groups spent a record $93 million on Wisconsin’s elections for state offices in 2022 — 50% more than in 2018 and two-and-half times the amount for 2014, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported Monday.

The campaign finance watchdog group said its preliminary calculations showed that almost $79 million — more than 80% of the outside funds spent this year — went to the race for governor, in which Democratic incumbent Tony Evers defeated Republican challenger Tim Michels.

Outside spending to benefit Republicans in the race for governor, attorney general and other statewide offices as well as candidates for the state Legislature, totaled $48.25 million, the Democracy Campaign reported. Spending on behalf of Democrats in those contests totaled slightly more than $44 million. 

More than 70 organizations raised and spent money on the fall state elections, with 35 favoring Republicans and 36 favoring Democrats. 

The figures include independent express advocacy ads that explicitly urge people to vote for or against a candidate, and so-called issue ads, often by some of the same groups, that praise or attack a candidate without directly telling the audience how to vote. 

Express advocacy spending must be reported under Wisconsin campaign finance laws. Issue ads are exempt from those legal requirements; the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates issue ad spending by reviewing TV stations’ reports to the Federal Communications Commission on their advertising sales.

On each side, the biggest spenders were partisan governors’ groups. The Democracy Campaign estimated that the Democratic Governors Association spent $20.1 million through an issue ad organization that bought TV spots. The ads attacked Michels  “on education, abortion, guns, and media reports about sexual harassment complaints filed by female employees of his construction company,” according to the Democracy Campaign report.

The Republican Governors Association spent an estimated $15.3 million through three different groups, “mostly on television ads throughout the state that attacked Evers on crime and tax issues from July until Election Day,” the report stated.

Among the other big spenders identified in the report were:

  • A Better Wisconsin Together, $6.8 million on behalf of Democrats including Evers, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and 23 Democratic legislative candidates, both through its express-advocacy political fund and on issue ads from the organization.
  • Americans for Prosperity, $6.53 million, which includes spending on behalf of Michels, 19 Republican legislative candidates, and the primary campaign for Adam Jarchow in the attorney general’s race. Jarchow lost the Republican nomination to challenge Kaul.
  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, $4.52 million, most of it for advertising benefiting Republicans in the governor’s race and in races for two seats in the Legislature. 

Outside spending on state races in the years that include elections for governor and other statewide offices has grown dramatically over the last decade, according to the Democracy campaign. In 2018, when Evers and Kaul were first elected, it totaled $61.86 million — a record at the time. Four years earlier, in 2014, it was $36.63 million. In 2010, it totaled $18.9 million — one-fifth of the 2023 figure. 


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.