Campaign donations tripled in the race for state Sen. Janet Bewley's seat last year compared to the previous election in 2014, The Badger Project has found in an investigation of campaign finance records.
Bewley, 67, a Democrat from Mason, squeaked by her Republican challenger James Bolen, a tourism official and the owner/operator of Lake Owen Resort in Cable. The incumbent senator won about 51 percent of the vote in the State Senate's 25th, a huge, horseshoe-shaped district which covers portions of 13 counties in the northwest corner of the state.
The position of state senator in Wisconsin is considered part-time and pays an annual salary of $52,999.
In the 2014 campaign, Bewley's first run for state Senate after two terms in the Assembly, she raised about $111,000. This time she pulled in nearly three times that amount - more than $316,000.
"This was my fourth race on the state level, and the hardest, without a doubt," Bewley said.
The senator lamented the ongoing realities of political campaigns: each election requires significantly more fundraising than the last. And, the more time an elected official devotes to raising money, the less time is available to interact with voters, understand their concerns and address the important issues, Bewley said.
Bolen actually outraised Bewley overall, bringing in about $340,000.
And the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee flooded the TV airwaves in the district opposing Bewley with "issue ads," which urge voters to contact the candidate about a specific issue. The committee spent about $350,000, according to an estimate by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization which tracks campaign spending in the state.
But the Republican lost in the voting booth. He earned 37,960 votes to Bewley's 39,624.
Bolen did not respond to several messages seeking comment. The Republican Party of Wisconsin also did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Changes at the top, more spending down the ballot
The election in the 25th State Senate District was the first since the Republican-controlled legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker loosened campaign finance rules in 2015. Among many changes, the new rules allowed a doubling of direct donations to candidates and removed limits on donations to and from political parties.
Before those changes, Wisconsin restricted an individual's total political donations to $10,000 per year. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits like those in 2014, the legislature went further by removing all limits on individuals donating to political parties, as well as on political parties donating to candidates.
Those changes create a path for ultrarich donors to send limitless amounts of money through the parties to candidates. While one person can only give a maximum of $2,000 per campaign cycle to a candidate for state Senate like Bewley or Bolen, anyone can write a million-dollar check to a political party. And a few did.
The Badger Project review of campaign donations found that Diane Hendricks, the Beloit-area owner of ABC Supply Co. gave more than $2 million to the Republican Party of Wisconsin in 2018. Marlene Ricketts, the matriarch of the billionaire family who owns the Chicago Cubs, and Liz Uihlein, one-half of a wealthy, Chicago couple who donate heavily to conservative candidates, each gave $1 million to the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.
On the Democrat side, former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, donated nearly $450,000 to the state Democrats last year, The Badger Project found. Lynde Uihlein, a big liberal donor, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, and a distant relative to Liz Uihlein's husband Dick, gave $340,000.
The downstream effect of those unlimited donations to parties - and parties' new capacity to give unlimited amounts to individual candidates - played out in the State Senate 25th District race.
Sensing a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Republican Party committees gave $240,000 to Bolen, which amounted to more than 70 percent of his entire campaign haul, The Badger Project found.
Democratic Party committees contributed nearly $125,000 to Bewley, about 40 percent of her total contributions.
'Buckets of money'
Heading into the 2018 election, Republicans in the State Assembly had a massive 64 to 35 majority over Democrats.
But Republicans held a narrow, five-seat majority in the 33-member state Senate.
"The pressure on the Republicans to stand their ground - and/or brace for potential losses - encouraged aggressive campaigning in tight districts across the country, in the effort to limit" the "blue wave" of liberal voting many expected, said Alisa Von Hagel, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, in an email.
Democrats sensed an opportunity, and Republicans countered.
In the end, last year's spending spree brought a few thousand more voters to the polls in the 25th District, but Bewley's 51 percent to 49 percent victory margin remained almost the same from four years earlier.
That year, Bewley got 35,055 votes while Republican Dane Deutsch received 33,445.
Bewley slightly outraised Deutsch in that election about $111,000 to about $92,000.
This time the candidates had to spend more time fundraising to offset each other.
"I'm not going out there trying to raise buckets of money," Bewley said. "I'm trying to pay the bills. 'What do I need to do to get my message out, and how much is it going to cost?' I don't think 'if I had $500,000, I could crush him.'"
At the end of the campaign, Bewley said a burst of negative advertising forced her to go back to her supporters.
"The last couple days, we were literally in the car, driving, looking for money," she said.
The Democrat had strong support from organized labor, collecting tens of thousands from unions. She received $2,000 - the new, maximum donation for a state Senate candidate - from the local and statewide teachers union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Plumbers & Gasfitters Local 75, among many others.
And a progressive group, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, unloaded more than $40,000 to run negative ads about Bolen. That group has spent more than $32 million in elections in the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The Greater Wisconsin Committee is funded by traditional Democrat constituents, including unions and Lynde Uihlein.
Bolen raised about $100,00 from sources outside the Republican Party. He received the maximum donation of $2,000 from 11 individuals, and also from the campaign committees of state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, and state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. Each gave Bolen the maximum $2,000.
The Democrat hangs on again, and looks to future
Bewley attributes her two tight victories to her consistency in Madison, and staying focused on "the basic expenses of life."
"I talk about meat and potato things that really affect the people in my district," she said, pointing to roads, schools, jobs, broadband internet and cellphone coverage.
She said she avoids "highly charged, really sexy issues" such as climate change and wolf hunts that engage hard-core liberals.
"I think I've been pretty true to my values," Bewley said. "I've been the same person now as when I got elected to the Assembly (in 2010), so people don't see me waffling on stuff.
Von Hagel noted that Superior and Douglas County, both left-leaning areas, have some of the largest populations in the very rural senate district, giving a slight edge to the Democrats.
Contact Peter Cameron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit that investigates state government in Wisconsin. Visit www.thebadgerproject.org. Campaign donor data courtesy of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in Politics.