2018 State Legislative Elections Break All Previous Spending Records

 Joe Murray  |    April 08, 2019
2018 State Legislative Elections

According to numbers compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, total campaign spending by all state legislative candidates and third-party interest groups totaled a record $35.8 million in the 2018 election cycle. This was a 27 percent increase over the 28.1 million spent in the 2016 election cycle, and it was double the amount spent on all legislative elections during the 2014 elections. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign tracks campaign spending in all Wisconsin elections and advocates for restrictions on campaign spending and other election-related issues.

Driving factors 

Two factors are primarily responsible for the dramatic increase in spending by legislative candidates, partisan caucus committees and politically active third-party interest groups.

First, the Wisconsin Senate was targeted by Democrats in 2018 to flip from red to blue, which drove millions of new dollars into state Senate elections from both in-state and out-of-state Democratic funding sources. Second, new Wisconsin campaign finance laws were passed in 2015 by the legislature and signed into law by then Gov. Scott Walker that doubled candidate contribution limits, allowed corporate contributions to state political party committees and, campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders. These factors were largely responsible for the dramatic rise in spending on legislative elections in 2018. For example, six state Senate elections highlight the significant spending increase in the 2018 election cycle. All six districts were targeted by both political parties and, with the exception of one ‚ÄĒ the 23rd state Senate District in Northwestern Wisconsin ‚ÄĒ stayed on the priority watchlist right though the November elections.

Heading into Election Day, four of these six Senate seats were held by Republicans in districts 5, 17, 19 and 23; and two of the seats were occupied by Democrats in districts 1 and 25. After all the votes were counted and millions of dollars spent to flip control of the Senate to the Democrats, Republicans actually gained one seat and now control five of the six seats. 

While the outcome was disappointing for Democrats, there were good reasons to believe the Wisconsin Senate was a legitimate target for a takeover. In two state Senate special elections prior to November, Democrats defeated Republicans in districts long held by Republicans. And in the April election for state Supreme Court, liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet defeated conservative candidate Michael Screnock. Conservatives had not lost an open seat in a Supreme Court race in 20 years. With the national and state political environment working in their favor in 2018, Democrats had reason to believe they had a legitimate shot to take control of the upper house in Wisconsin. In the end, the Republican incumbency advantage and fundraising ability was too much to overcome.

2018 State Legislative Elections - Total Spending Chart2

As we look ahead to the 2020 legislative elections in Wisconsin, one thing to watch is how competitive the presidential election will be in Wisconsin. If Trump and his Democratic opponent are locked in a tight race at the top of the ticket, this likely works well for legislative Republicans down the ballot. If Democrats are running in a favorable political environment next summer and fall, Wisconsin could see lots of money coming into legislative races once again.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

2018 State Legislative Elections - Chart Image

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