Jim Doyle
Gov. Jim Doyle

The $1.8 million war chest of Gov. Jim Doyle has long been the subject of speculation. At first, people wondered whether such a stash meant that Doyle, then more than half way through his second term in office, would indeed run for a third term.

Once the governor announced last August that he would not seek re-election, speculation turned to what Doyle would do with the money. Among his options: donate it to charity, return it to contributors, or give the money to another politician or political organization.

Last week, campaign finance reports filed with the Government Accountability Board solved the mystery. After nearly a year of making minimal donations, the governor gave $1 million in August to the political action committee of the liberal-leaning Greater Wisconsin, a group with a history of running attack ads in statewide races.

Doyle’s move to indirectly assist Milwaukee Mayor and Democratic front-runner Tom Barrett is a double-edged sword for the candidate.

On the one hand, Barrett’s rivals will likely continue to be targets of ads produced by Greater Wisconsin. Shortly after receiving the money in August, Greater Wisconsin ran an attack ad against Barrett’s presumed Republican opponent, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

The donation also allows Barrett to keep his distance from an unpopular incumbent.

“At some point, everybody understands Barrett is going to have to throw Doyle under the bus,” says Joe Heim, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse. “It is pretty hard if someone writes you two checks for half a million dollars to do that.”

But others say the connection could hurt Barrett. Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says that while 99 percent of voters will never read the fine print at the bottom of a television ad, the contribution still ties Barrett to Doyle and gives others the opportunity to exploit the tie.

Predictably, the state Republican Party was quick to point out the connection last Wednesday, a day after Greater Wisconsin filed its report with the Government Accountability Board.

“From our perspective, what happened is pretty clear. Doyle could have given his money directly to Barrett. But he didn’t,” says Andrew Wellhouse, a state GOP spokesperson. “He purposefully went through a political action committee — specifically a political action committee that deals exclusively with political attack ads. Doyle is allowing the group to do Barrett’s dirty work for him.”

But there is another reason Doyle might have chosen to donate to Greater Wisconsin’s political action committee, rather than directly to Barrett’s political campaign. This way he was able to give more money.

Once Doyle announced he wasn’t seeking re-election, his campaign fund by law began to function as a political action committee. Under state law, there are no limits on how much one PAC can donate to another, but there are limits on how much a political action committee can directly contribute to a candidate’s political campaign. Doyle would only have been able to give roughly $43,000 to Barrett directly.

Barrett’s camp dismisses any direct ties between its campaign and Greater Wisconsin by correctly stating the campaign cannot legally interact with any political action committee.

“We have no idea what they are thinking or doing,” says Phil Walzak, a Barrett spokesman. “The Republicans are trying to make an issue of it because the Walker campaign is self-destructing in front of their eyes.”

Before Doyle’s political action committee gave two $500,000 checks to Greater Wisconsin — one on Aug. 2 and the second on Aug. 18 — it had made only minimal political donations. Doyle picked up a roughly $900 tab in February at Cooper’s Tavern, a restaurant across the street from the Capitol, for a Barrett fundraiser. He also gave $1,000 toward the re-election of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and $6,000 to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s bid for governor.

Greater Wisconsin Executive Director Michelle McGrorty declined to clarify how her group plans to spend the rest of the money received from Doyle’s PAC before the November elections. Instead, McGrorty said in a statement that her group supports a progressive policy agenda, including health care reform and tax fairness, and that Scott Walker opposes such goals.

Doyle still has about $800,000 left to spend.

Heim and Wellhouse predict he will donate the money to Barrett either directly or indirectly to keep a Democrat in the governor’s office who would presumably protect Doyle’s pet programs, including the Wisconsin Covenant program, high-speed rail and BadgerCare. “The most effective way for him to protect his legacy is to give money to a political action committee that does attack ads (on Republicans),” Wellhouse says.

The next glimpse into how much, if anything, Doyle will donate ahead of the Nov. 2 election will come on Oct. 25. That’s when the next round of campaign finance reports are due to the Government Accountability Board. The reports will include contributions made through Oct. 18. After that, all contributions of $500 or more must be reported within 24 hours to the GAB — that prevents PACs from dumping money into races at the last minute in an attempt to keep spending secret until after the election.

“I would expect a fair amount of the money is going to go toward Barrett,” Heim says. “Otherwise, a lot of what Doyle accomplished is going to go by the wayside.”


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