Candidates and interest groups poured more than $78 million into Wisconsin’s recent U.S. Senate race that led to Democrat Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s Nov. 6 win over former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, making it the most expensive Senate election in state history.
New financial disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that the candidates, including those who lost to Thompson in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, spent just over $34 million during the current two-year election cycle through Nov. 26, the reporting cutoff.
Baldwin led the candidate spending at $14.7 million. Thompson doled out $9.2 million, including $800,000 of his own money, the FEC filings show. Eric Hovde, who came in second to Thompson in the primary, was third in spending at $6.3 million, almost all his own money.
In addition, outside interest groups reported spending about $44 million on the election, according to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of FEC data. The money came from traditional political action committees, super PACs and nonprofit groups.
The $78 million total adds up to more than $20 per vote, including both the primary and general election. It more than doubles the previous record for a Wisconsin federal election, set in 2010, when Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold lost to Republican Ron Johnson. During the two-year cycle that included the 2010 election, the candidates spent $33 million and outside groups chipped in another $5 million, according to FEC filings and the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog.
“This was the most expensive U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin history, by a longshot,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan elections watchdog. “What you see is this marauding horde of interest groups coming into the state and buying up all the airtime.”
The 2012 Senate race nearly matches the $81 million spent on the June 6 recall election against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as tallied by Democracy Campaign. This figure includes estimates of expenditures made by groups that ran so-called issue ads and do not file reports with the state.
The $78 million figure in the U.S. Senate race includes only expenditures that were reported to the FEC. It includes some but not all of the spending on issue ads, which under federal law must be reported only if made within 60 days of the general election or 30 days of the primary. Just under $2 million of these outlays, called “electioneering communications,” were reported in Wisconsin.
Most of the $44 million in outside spending on Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race went for negative messaging. The FEC requires outside groups to list expenditures as being either for or against a given candidate.
Political action committees and other traditional sources accounted for about $16 million, led by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $7.1 million to oppose Thompson and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which spent $5.5 million against Baldwin.
Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money so long as they act independently of a candidate’s campaign, spent another $14 million. Leading this field were the pro-Democratic Majority PAC and Women Vote!, a super PAC run by Emily’s List, which spent $4.9 million and $2.7 million, respectively, mostly to oppose Thompson. American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC, spent a total of $2.7 million for Thompson and against Baldwin.
The third category was 501(c) nonprofit groups, which can conceal their donors. These groups reported parting with more than $13 million, led by Crossroads GPS, which spent $4.7 million against Baldwin, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $2.9 million, mostly to oppose Baldwin.
Overall, the spending by outside groups was nearly evenly divided between the two major candidates. About $20 million was spent to oppose Baldwin or support Thompson. Nearly $22 million was spent to oppose Thompson (some by groups favoring other Republicans) or back Baldwin.
Total spending, including the candidates’ own campaigns, came to $37 million for Baldwin and $29 million for Thompson. She won the election with 51 percent of the vote, compared to 46 percent for Thompson.
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.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.