Money and Democracy

Published — June 5, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Walker wins Wisconsin recall election flooded with outside spending


With a 7-to-1 fundraising advantage and record turnout, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defeated a union-led recall challenge by Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett.

The Wisconsin vote captured national attention, and a flood of out-of-state money. Of the $63.5 million dollars spent, $45 million came from Walker’s campaign and supporters, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The record spending total was made possible thanks to the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision — which had the effect of invalidating Wisconsin’s century-old ban on independent expenditures by corporations and unions — and a state law that allowed unlimited contributions to the incumbent in recall elections.

Eager to repudiate Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees, national unions focused money and manpower on the state, but struggled to keep up with the governor’s fundraising machine.

The nation’s three largest public sector unions sent at least $2 million to two outside spending groups — We are Wisconsin and Greater Wisconsin — which fought for airtime with the Republican Governors Association and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

In the weekend before the vote, Greater Wisconsin spent $68,000 for online ads opposing Walker, and $30,000 more for a last-minute TV blitz. The Republican Governors Association spent more, dropping $475,000 on TV ads and $50,000 on Facebook ads opposing Barrett, and $94,000 on robocalls supporting Walker.

Barrett supporters looked to close the fundraising gap by deploying a vast network of union-funded field offices. We are Wisconsin hired campaign staff for an extensive get-out-the-vote campaign. The group reported through its Twitter account that its 50,000 volunteers would “knock on 1.4 million doors & make 1.5 million calls” by the time polls closed.

The effort appeared to work in Madison — a Barrett stronghold. The city clerk projected that turnout was on pace to surpass 100 percent in the city — signaling an influx of new voters registering at the polls. In Barrett’s Milwaukee, poll workers reported running out of voter registration forms.

The state’s Government Accountability Board predicted between that 60 and 65 percent of Wisconsin’s 4.4 million eligible voters would cast ballots, which would set a nationwide record for a gubernatorial election.

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