By Kate Elizabeth Queram and Alissa Smith Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Labor unions are throwing millions of dollars into Wisconsin’s recall elections. And the political action committee getting the millions has a simple goal: Make sure Democrats win and Republicans lose.
To date, We Are Wisconsin’s political action committee has raised more than $4 million for recall efforts, with most of the large contributions coming from labor unions, according to campaign finance documents.
“Just six weeks after the formation of the We Are Wisconsin PAC to engage in the historic Wisconsin recall elections, pre-primary financial reports show the group in a strong position to help flip the Wisconsin state Senate,” the organization said in a news release.
The PAC has raised more than $4 million and has $2 million on hand, the group said in a news release.
We Are Wisconsin is a nonprofit voter education and grassroots lobbying organization that worked to organize anti-government protests at the Wisconsin Capitol and around the state, according to its website.
Kelly Steele, a spokesman for We Are Wisconsin, declined to comment on the organization’s fundraising numbers. He didn’t say where the organization is spending its millions.
Finance documents show that virtually all large contributions coming into We Are Wisconsin’s PAC were from labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the country.
AFSCME gave more than $1.07 million to the We Are Wisconsin PAC, while the AFL-CIO dropped more than $3.1 million into the campaign coffers. The American Federation of Teachers donated $22,168.55. The AFT is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and claims to represent more than 1.5 million people.
The Government Accountability Board, or GAB, the state’s election agency, enforces a $1,000 limit on direct contributions from PACs to candidates. But political action committees are free to use funds to try to influence voters by phone, in person and on television, according to GAB spokesman Reid Magney.
“They can make independent expenditures. That means they can go and run an ad that says, ‘Sen. So-and-so is a great person and should be retained’ or ‘The challenger doesn’t deserve to be elected,’” Magney said. “The restriction on these is that any committee that’s making these independent ads can’t coordinate them with any candidate, but if I run a PAC, there’s nothing that says that I can’t go out and buy airtime and run ads that say that candidate A is great and candidate B is bad.”
The We Are Wisconsin PAC spent more money opposing Republican candidates than it did supporting Democrats, according to the finance documents. The committee paid more than $1 million — a total of $1,019,276 — on mailing, television ads, phone banks and campaign staffing to defeat Republicans, compared with $975,016 on the same measures backing Democrats.
The amount of union money pouring into the recall elections is unprecedented but unsurprising, as the political battles were spurred mostly by the passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill earlier this year.
Introduced in February, the legislation contained a controversial measure that increased public employees’ contributions to their pension and health-care funds while restricting their collective bargaining rights to wages only, and capping salary increases to the rate of inflation. The law took effect June 29, well after the actions of both parties had set into motion the wheels of recall efforts.
Three Democratic senators — Robert Wirch, of Pleasant Prairie; Jim Holperin, of Conover and Dave Hansen, of Green Bay — and six Republicans — Sens. Alberta Darling, of River Hills; Dan Kapanke, of La Crosse; Robert Cowles, of Green Bay; Luther Olsen, of Ripon; Randy Hopper, of Fon du Lac and Sheila Harsdorf, of River Falls — are facing recalls.
In some cases, the money used by the We Are Wisconsin PAC to defeat the six Republican candidates via phone, mail and the airwaves has nearly eclipsed the funds raised by the candidates themselves.
For example, the PAC spent nearly $78,000 on campaign staff members, phone banks, brochures and television ads urging voters to support Cowles’ opponents, including former De Pere Mayor Nancy Nusbaum of De Pere, who is a former Brown County executive. Former Republican state Rep. Otto Junkermann of Green Bay, who is running as a Democrat in the recall, said he doesn’t “know how I could avoid being considered” a placeholder candidate in the race.
That’s $78,000 from the We Are Wisconsin PAC nearly equal to Cowles’ overall fundraising total, which was $100,521 as of Tuesday, according to finance documents. Cowles’ campaign manager Craig Summerfield called that outcome unsurprising.
“We’ve known from the beginning that we’d be out-fundraised both directly and from the outside groups,” said Summerfield.
Summerfield said he believes the money is being spent on door knocking and phone calls asking people to vote against the incumbent senator, as well as staff costs for recall committee members.
Calls to the campaigns of the Democratic candidates were not returned.
Gillian Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said We Are Wisconsin is “completely independent from us,” and any funding from the organization is not coordinated or affiliated with the state Democratic Party.