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Outside groups spent an eye-popping $61 million on Wisconsin’s 2018 midterm election, more than the previous two midterm elections combined, according to a new analysis by a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending.

The post-election review conducted by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found groups that are generally separate from candidate and party committees doled out about $25 million more than they did in 2014 leading up to the Nov. 6 election, largely in an effort to slam candidates.

The review found spending in 2018 was three times higher than in 2010, when outside groups put $19 million into their electioneering efforts.

The spending was about equally heavy on both sides, with the Democratic Governors Association spending the most with $13 million. Groups backing Republicans spent about $31 million and groups backing Democrats spent $30 million.

There is no limit to how much independent groups can spend on an election.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild said in an interview the increase in spending can be attributed to several factors, but that the competitiveness of statewide races is chief among them.

The increased outside spending comes after a major rewrite of the state’s campaign finance system in 2015, which Rothschild argues makes it easier for national groups to spend big in the state while keeping their donors secret.

“The changes in the law of 2015 just gave rich people and corporations and outside groups more and more ability to influence our elections and our attitudes and to splatter our screens with mud,” Rothschild said.

Still, Republican advocates of the 2015 rewrite heralded it as providing more transparency and setting more concrete expectations for candidate fundraising.

The $61 million includes two types of spending:

  • Independent expenditures, or spending on ads that is generally required to be disclosed to state and federal authorities because the ads specifically call for viewers to “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate, though there are exceptions to the disclosure requirements. The Democracy Campaign previously logged such spending at $36.5 million over the 2018 campaign.
  • Another $25 million was spent on so-called “issue ads,” which can praise or criticize candidates, but do not specifically encourage viewers to vote for or against a candidate. Groups that incur such spending are not required to disclose their donors.

In 2014, roughly $19 million came in the form of independent expenditures while about $18 million was spent on issue ads.

In 2018, nine outside groups spent more than $1 million on Wisconsin races.

The single largest amount of spending came from the Democratic Governors Association, which, through the issue advocacy group A Stronger Wisconsin, backed Tony Evers in his successful gubernatorial bid. According to the Democracy Campaign, all of the group’s $13 million was spent on issue ads.

The Democracy Campaign noted the group aired dozens of TV ads during the fall attacking Gov. Scott Walker on education, health care and transportation.

The Republican Governors Association spent the second most with roughly $11 million all in the form of independent expenditures through two political action committees. Those committees sponsored ads that attacked Evers on teacher misconduct and tax and spending issues.

Other groups that spent significant sums in Wisconsin are the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by business magnates David and Charles Koch; the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent $7 million to back Democratic candidates; and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which spent more than $5 million, largely to support Walker and Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, who lost to Democratic challenger Josh Kaul.

Rothschild said national groups such as AFP have become bigger players in Wisconsin elections since the sweeping campaign finance law rewrite.

Under Wisconsin’s new campaign finance system, if money spent by outside groups in Wisconsin is no more than 50 percent of an independent expenditure group’s total campaign spending in a year, those groups don’t have to register or disclose their donors to the state Ethics Commission.

Rothschild said the campaign finance rewrite makes it easier for national groups to spend money on ads that directly use the “vote for” or “vote against” language because in most cases, they now do not have to disclose their activity to the state.

Americans for Prosperity, for example, is estimated to have spent more than $8 million in 2018, much of it through independent expenditures. Before the campaign finance overhaul, Rothschild said it was more likely for the group’s backers to spend via issue ads.

The 2015 campaign finance rewrite also made it clear that candidates may coordinate with issue advocacy groups and allowed political party committees to accept unlimited amounts as well as contribute unlimited amounts to candidates.

Outside groups spent a record amount in the race for attorney general. The Republican Attorneys General Association is estimated to have spent nearly $3 million while the Democratic Attorneys General Association put down more than $2 million to back Kaul.

Editor's Note: The story was updated to reflect that Americans for Prosperity was founded by David and Charles Koch. David Koch stepped down from the board earlier this year.

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