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Walker forecasts end to sky-high spending in races

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Scott Walker’s prediction regarding the vast sums spent in the recent gubernatorial elections can be summed up with: This, too, shall pass.

“I think if we don’t have outside groups involved in the next election,” Walker said, “four years from now, whether it’s I or somebody else running, you’ll probably have a much, much lower amount spent, probably closer to what we had in the past.”

Total spending in the race between Walker, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Mary Burke likely topped $60 million. That shatters the previous record of an estimated $37 million for a regular midterm race, set when Walker was elected in 2010, but falls short of the estimated $81 million doled out on the 2012 recall election.

Walker, a possible presidential contender, said the extraordinary spending owes to extraordinary circumstances. Other than the opposition he faced from national labor unions, he said, “I had President Obama, President Clinton, the entire Washington infrastructure in here making me their No. 1 target in America.”

Walker and Burke benefited from millions of dollars in outside spending, some of it “dark money” from unknown donors. In direct contributions, Walker raised about $26 million to Burke’s $16 million, going back to when she entered the race in October 2013.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has called for changing state law to let businesses donate directly to political parties. In Wisconsin, corporations cannot donate to candidates or parties, but some pay for outside groups engaged in election-related advocacy.

Vos, speaking to WisconsinEye, pitched direct-giving as preferable because “it’s transparent, it has to be disclosed to the public, it’s all available online.”

Walker, however, is cool to that idea.

“I have no interest in going down the path of other states” that allow corporate contributions, he said, citing Illinois as an example. “I don’t see a direct benefit in that.”

The Legislature also is likely to make a fresh effort to raise contribution limits for candidates and parties. But Walker said “we were able to do just fine” in the last election, in which individuals could give no more than $10,000 to his campaign.

In fact, he noted, reciting numbers from a campaign press release, more than 70 percent of his donations in the last reporting period were from people giving $75 or less. His representation is correct, in terms of the number of donations.

But those smaller sums accounted for just 14 percent of the total amount raised by Walker’s campaign during that period, while donations of $500 or more made up 64 percent.

Keeping track of such data is part of the sprawling mission of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, charged with overseeing state campaign finance, elections, lobbying and ethics laws. The agency began the year with a bull’s-eye on its back, and Vos has declared its director, Kevin Kennedy, “must go.”

Walker, following an audit report that identified problems with the agency’s performance, has said he is open to changes in how the board operates. He remained noncommittal as to what those changes might be — whether to retain the board’s existing structure, return oversight of its functions to partisan appointees or try “something completely new and different.”

In response to GAB Chairman Thomas Barland’s recent comment that no one from the Legislature “has contacted me before making public calls for changes in how the board operates,” Walker said the state should solicit input from current and former board members.

That may be happening. Barland, who praised Kennedy, acknowledged having had “informative and congenial” meetings with two Republican lawmakers, at their request.

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