Race for the 30th tops $2 million
By Peter Cameron
The Badger Project
BROWN COUNTY – Chances are the race to replace veteran State Sen. Dave Hansen was the most expensive in the history of the state Legislature, according to an analysis by The Badger Project.
Attorney Eric Wimberger, a Republican, and De Pere Councilman Jonathon Hansen, a Democrat, combined to spend more than $2.2 million dollars in the 2020 election for the race for the 30th District.
In a sign of the times, the previous spending record for the Wisconsin State Legislature was broken four times in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to the analysis of campaign finance records by The Badger Project.
But the race in the 30th between Wimberger and Hansen spent the most.
After narrowly losing the 30th, which runs along the bay from Green Bay to Marinette, to State Sen. Dave Hansen in 2016, Wimberger won decisively this time.
But Jonathon Hansen, Dave Hansen’s nephew, won the money game – by a lot.
He raised and spent more than $1.4 million, according to campaign finance records.
Wimberger raised and spent a little over half that at about $800,000.
Most of that cash comes from the state political parties, thanks to a loophole in state campaign finance law.
The Democratic Party supplied Hansen with more than $1.2 million, 84 percent of his total haul.
Wimberger received nearly $700,000, or about 85 percent of his total, from the state GOP.
Hansen said President Donald Trump winning the district by a significant margin was one of a couple things going against him.
“We raised a lot of money, but campaign spending can only go so far in terms of overcoming gerrymandering and the partisan lean of a district, especially given that the numbers of voters willing to ticket-split continues to dwindle,” Hansen said.
Wimberger did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The fact the race was for an open seat prompted the parties to spend huge sums, said Aaron Weinschenk, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Dave Hansen, a Democrat, held the seat for 20 years before retiring last year.
Open seats, especially ones where the opposing party nearly won last time, present a greater chance for victory, Weinschenk said.
The open seat may have incentivized the parties to spend heavily there, but a loophole in state law allows them to do it without limit.
Campaign finance laws weakened, floodgates open
Elections for the 30th have seen much smaller amounts of campaign cash raised in the past.
The last time the seat was up for reelection in 2016, when Dave Hansen squeaked past Wimberger, the pair of candidates raised a total of less than $300,000.
But the explosion in cash from political parties in recent years can be directly attributed to the weakening of Wisconsin campaign finance laws in the last decade, said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state.
In 2015, after court cases effectively removed donation limits to and from political parties, the Republican-controlled state Legislature further diluted restrictions, Rothschild said.
He said those events have left a gaping hole in Wisconsin campaign finance law.
Though individuals are limited in what they can donate directly to a candidate, rich donors can now give unlimited amounts to political parties, which can turn around and give unlimited sums to candidates.
Wealthy donors are increasingly taking advantage of this.
In 2020, out-of-state billionaire liberals like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, and Karla Jurvetson, a California physician, donated $2.5 million and $2.8 million, respectively, to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Billionaires Diane Hendricks of ABC Building Supply, who lives in the Beloit area, and Elizabeth Uihlein of Uline Shipping Supplies, who splits time between Chicago and Wisconsin, last year gave $2.4 million and $1 million to state Republicans, respectively.
That mass of cash to political parties, and the lack of limits on those parties, is how Hansen was able to receive more than $1.2 million from the Democratic Party, and Wimberger was able to receive nearly $700,000 from the state GOP.
By contrast, an individual can only give a State Senate candidate in Wisconsin a maximum of $2,000 per election.
“It’s just astonishing that the price tag for running for office just continues to shatter the ceiling into the stratosphere,” Rothschild said.
Whether Wimberger and Hansen definitely broke campaign spending records is not definite.
The Wisconsin Ethics Commission, which monitors campaign finance in the state, has records dating back to 2008, Administrator Daniel A. Carlton Jr. said.
Previous records have either been destroyed or are housed in a state building somewhere.
But stricter campaign finance laws before 2015 and much more modest spending in state legislative races in the past make it probable that new highs were set last year.
Democrats have introduced a bill in the Republican-controlled Legislature that would apply limits on donations to and from political parties in Wisconsin, but Republicans aren’t supporting it.
Jonathan Hansen said he supported campaign finance reform, “but until such time, Democratic candidates cannot unilaterally disarm.”
“The only way to change campaign finance laws is to first get elected so that you can be in a position to actually change the laws,” he said.
Aside from his political party, organized labor was a major supporter of Hansen.
Unions for electrical workers, teamsters, sheet metal workers, teachers and firefighters all gave the Democrat $2,000, the maximum allowed by law.
Lynde Uihlein, a wealthy Milwaukee-area philanthropist and heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, gave Hansen the maximum $2,000, as did former state Senate Majority Leader Tim Cullen.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason), State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison), State Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) former Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, and Dave Hansen all donated the maximum $2,000 to Jonathon Hansen through their fundraising committees.
Wimberger received the maximum $2,000 from the Wisconsin Realtors Association and from the WEC Energy Group in Milwaukee. Walmart’s political action committee gave him $1,000.
Kimberlee Hendricks, stepdaughter of Beloit area billionaire Diane Hendricks of ABC Building Supply, gave him the maximum $2,000.
He also received the maximum $2,000 from the fundraising committees for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), State Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), State Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), State Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), and State Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma).
Independent spending on attack ads
The record campaign spending in the race for the 30th District in the Wisconsin State Senate does not include independent spending, which falls in a separate category.
Independent expenditure groups carpet-bombed the 30th with hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising to try and influence the race.
And not all these organizations have to disclose their donors.
These organizations, some of which are called Super PACs, are generally prohibited from coordinating with political campaigns, but they can raise and spend unlimited amounts attacking or promoting a candidate or an issue on the airwaves, online or in print.
They were unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A group called the Jobs First Coalition spent more than $150,000 attacking Hansen on TV and with mailers, according to campaign finance records.
Several former Republican state politicians have been involved with the group, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ wife, Michelle Litjens, who has served as a fundraiser, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
In total, conservative groups spent more than $400,000 running attack ads on TV, radio, online and through the mail against Hansen, according to campaign finance records.
Most of the independent spending against Wimberger came from a Monona-based group called A Better Wisconsin Together, which backs liberal candidates and spent more than $200,000 attacking him online, according to campaign finance records.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.