The attack ads started early.

A Milwaukee radio station carried one that accused Sen. Tammy Baldwin of supporting the abortions of the next “Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.”

Mailers arrived at people’s homes claiming Wisconsin state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, was drunk on the floor during a state budget debate.

One put Walker’s phone number on the screen and encouraged viewers to give him a call and thank him for being a good governor.

Costing millions of dollars, they blinked onto TV screens, rang through the airwaves, spilled out of mailboxes, appeared on social media feeds and were wedged into the margins of websites.

But none of them were paid for by the candidates’ campaigns.

Instead, the ads were funded by an unprecedented flood of spending on a midterm election by outside groups, many of whom are entirely bankrolled by ultra-rich donors.

In a hotly contested midterm election, independent conservative and liberal groups have spent nearly $1.3 billion on electioneering activities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks spending in U.S. elections. By comparison, the 2014 midterms saw less than $600 million in outside spending, and the midterms before that barely broke $300 million.

In Wisconsin, outside money didn’t so much trickle down as it did flood in. In the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races alone, supporters from both sides spent more than $50 million in total.

But digging deeper, the state becomes a dichotomy. In more prominent races, independent conservative groups dominated liberal ones in spending. In more local races, where Republicans have had an advantage in the past decade, a multifaceted and micro-targeted effort by liberal groups consistently outspent their conservative counterparts.

In an election that will determine not only who controls Congress but also who will draw Congressional districts come the once-in-a-decade census in 2020, the fight over Wisconsin’s state Legislature will have far-ranging ramifications. With the governor’s race in a deadlock and the U.S. Senate race all but decided, the state Senate may well be one of the most pivotal elections for Wisconsin voters.

Freshman fundraiser

Democrats have to flip two state senate seats to break the Republican hold on Wisconsin’s state government. Kriss Marion, running for state Senate District 17, is one of three candidates who could do just that.

Before Marion decided to run for Senate District 17, a sprawling district running from the state’s southwest corner up into Juneau county, and before she was a Lafayette County Board member, she was an organic farmer, a cookie advocate and a folk drummer. In 2000, suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis, she left the hustle and bustle of Chicago and returned to her rural roots, landing in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, a village of 825 people.

Anna Landmark, a longtime political operative who had run and worked on numerous campaigns in Wisconsin and across the nation, was at the same time easing her way out of politics. She started a hobby farm and started making artisanal cheeses, selling them out of a store in Paoli, Wisconsin.

Evers, Walker tied in polls with less than one week to go until election dayWith less than a week until the Nov. 6 midterms, a new Marquette Law School Poll found the two Wisconsin Read…

Marion and Landmark first met a decade ago through a network of female farmers and have been friends ever since. In 2016, Marion ran unopposed for the Lafayette County board. But when Marion eyed a bigger stage — their state Senate district’s seat, held since 2014 by Republican Howard Marklein — Landmark said she’d “love” to manage her campaign.

Marion’s county board elections were “really low dollar affairs” — less than $2,000 each, according to Landmark. For the state Senate, she would start with $0 against a candidate who, having been able to fundraise for three years, already had $280,000 in the bank.

“There’s no doubt that [money is] really important, and really, you need the money to get your message out effectively, right now particularly in the political climate,” Landmark said.

Despite being outspent by Marklein 7-to-1 in the early going, Marion has closed the gap. From Sep. 1 to Oct. 22 —  the latest financial disclosure period — Marion raised approximately $345,000 to Marklein’s $337,000 and spent $379,000 to Marklein’s $773,000.

A shell game  

Mirroring the spending patterns of other competitive elections in the state, however, outside groups outspent both candidates combined, lifting the burden of certain campaign costs off the candidates’ shoulders and further shrinking the money gap in Marion’s favor. Groups favoring Marion outspent groups favoring Marklein by $137,000, according to data from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit tracking money in Wisconsin politics.

But no one knows where significant portions of the money are coming from. The source of the this dark money is masked in what the WDC calls a “shell game.”

The majority of “dark money,” or money spent on electioneering activities where the source of the funds does not have to be disclosed, comes from 501(c) organizations. These are non-profit, tax-exempt groups that cannot expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate, as designated by Internal Revenue Services.

It’s difficult to determine how much these groups spend. As long as they allocate less than 49 percent of their funds toward direct political advocacy, they keep their IRS designation and don’t have to disclose their donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has shown how narrow this definition of political advocacy is.

A 2014 ad, for instance, claimed former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan was “taking care of Washington insiders, not North Carolina Families.” But because it did not explicitly call for her defeat, it could be classified as “educational” and not count against their “direct” spending. AFP aired more than 33,000 ads like this in 2014 alone.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimated $134 million in dark money has been spent in the 2018 midterm election cycle — a substantial but relatively paltry sum compared to overall outside spending.

But there’s more dark money than meets the eye. 501(c)s can also give organizations like Super PACs unlimited amounts of dark money. The Super PAC can then use that money to make the types of independent expenditures the dark money group couldn’t while leaving the cash trail clean on both sides.

A 2018 ad from the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund exemplifies this loophole.

The ad called on viewers to vote against Walker for spending taxpayer money on numerous plane flights, an act of express advocacy. As a 527 organization, they can engage in these types of direct campaign politics unlike their quasi-parent company but must register with the IRS and disclose their donors. However, except for a blurb at the end of the ad saying who paid for the ad and that it was not authorized by the candidate’s campaign, it is indistinguishable from a 30-second ad paid for by a candidate.

“A lot of times we don’t know who’s buying the mud that’s splattering our screens all these days during the election time,” executive director of WDC Matt Rothschild said. “And that is bad for transparency and democracy and bad for potential corruption.”

Leaving the door open

For 32 years as a writer and editor at The Progressive magazine in Madison, Rothschild watched as “dark,” corporate money consumed Wisconsin and pulled it from its progressive roots, at one point home to one of the earliest and best public financing election systems in the nation.

“We used to guard against that in Wisconsin, and now the sky’s the limit and the door is wide open for individual corruption,” Rothschild said.

Everything you need to know before the 2018 midterm electionsWith the eyes of the nation firmly focused on key Wisconsin races, here’s what you need to know before polls Read…

Numerous court decisions and laws have led Wisconsin to where it is now, but three stand above the rest: FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc.; Citizens United v. FEC; and Wisconsin Act 117.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the 2007 Wisconsin Right to Life case enabled the proliferation of various “issue” ads funded by dark money. In 2010, Citizens United opened the door for unions and corporations to spend unlimited amounts on elections as long as it is spent without coordination with a candidate.

Then, in 2015, the Wisconsin state Legislature drafted and signed a substantial rewrite of the state’s campaign finance laws in Act 117.

According to WDC, it doubled the limit of what political parties can receive from a single PAC in a year — from $6,000 to $12,000 — and eliminated limits on how much money individuals could give to political parties and Legislative Campaign Committee candidates. Additionally, having overturned a 1905 law that restricted how much money a party or LCC could give a candidate, the act gave those groups the ability to transfer unlimited funds to a candidate.

But the act is unpopular with many, as Rothschild referred to it as a “scam.”

On the one hand, a rich individual can mask their donations by sending it through a dark money group and into an independent expenditure fund or Super PAC. On the other hand, they can donate unlimited amounts of money to their political party of choice, which in turn can shovel that money to a candidate’s committee.

In the past couple of weeks alone, Diane Hendricks, the billionaire owner of Hendricks Holding, Inc. a Beloit-based conglomerate, and Cecelia Ricketts, the wife of the billionaire Chicago Cubs owner, have donated millions to the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Rothschild said.

Outside origins

Two of the biggest spenders in the race between Marion and Marklein – one on the right, one on the left – used nearly $600,000 in untraceable dark money to exchange attacks and praises.

On the right, the American Federation for Children Action Fund Independent Expenditure Committee Inc. spent $565,000 on TV ads, radio spots and mailers attacking Marion.

According to the group’s two campaign finance reports of the year, almost $1 million was spent across 16 state senate and assembly races. More than half of the spending came in the form of a flurry of TV ads two weeks before the midterms.

While a $375,000 check from the billionaire heir to the Walmart fortunes Jim Walton was disclosed, $350,000 came in the form of dark money from American Federation for Children, a Washington D.C.-based dark money group that supports school privatization. AFC was organized and is at least partially funded by the billionaire Devos family.

AFC-IE makes independent expenditures in Wisconsin elections on AFC’s behalf. But because the report only has to show AFC “transferring” money to AFC-IE, and AFC doesn’t have to disclose their donors, the money goes completely dark.

On the left, the same process applies.

In the past eight years, Greater Wisconsin has spent the most in the state of any outside group — liberal or conservative. A 501(c) group capable of drawing in and shuffling around dark money, the group formed the Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund to promote Democrats and attack Republicans on its behalf. In the fall elections alone, it has spent $2 million.

Like AFC-IE, GWP-IE took in vast amounts of money in 2018 — $2,673,000, according to the organization’s three substantial campaign finance reports of the year.

Unlike AFC-IE, however, where at least the source of some of the money was disclosed, none of GWP-IE’s sources were disclosed. The only source cited was GWP, whose donors are largely untraceable.

“Our democracy is drowning in a sea of dark money and big money and corporate money,” Rothschild said. “And until we get a grip on that problem, we are not going to have a functioning democracy either in Wisconsin or in the country.”

Money matters

With independent groups pouring staggering amounts of money into races and candidates breaking fundraising efforts across the country, is funding as crucial to electoral victory as it appears from the outside?

“Without a doubt,” Heather Colburn, a long-time fundraiser and political operative, said. “How much money you have defines your path to victory. Sometimes you can find a path to victory without outspending your opponent, but it’s rare.”

She discovered first-hand that money was the foundation of any campaign when she interned for Tammy Baldwin while still in college. Baldwin, a state Assemblywoman at the time, had decided to run for Congress and recruited Colburn to help her fundraise.

In wake of midterm elections, Wisconsin voters are not subject to ideological shiftReading political analyses of Wisconsin can sometimes feel like reading about cold-case murders — it’s all the more horrifying because Read…

After being trained by EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, she saw the difference money makes in an election — especially for women.

A recent survey of Democratic primary winners for House seats found women raised on average $185,000 less than men.

“It takes a little bit longer for them to get that viability than men who are often granted that viability out of the gate,” Colburn said.

Even Hillary Clinton, the most prominent female politician in the country, Colburn added, was treated and evaluated differently based on trivial aspects like her hair and clothes.

Colburn was the Wisconsin state director for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and the national women vote director for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. She now runs two political consulting companies — one that handles digital fundraising and one that handles mail fundraising.

There’s a split in how useful money is at the federal and state level, however. Colburn said money is essential for federal races because candidates have to spend more money on advertising to get their message out. House candidates who raise more money than their opponent, for instance, win nine times out of ten.

At the local level, more can be done with less, she said. Campaigns can spend less on costly TV ad buys and divert those savings to a less expensive door-to-door ground game.

Planting local roots

The rich have a wide range of choices if they want to influence an election. Those with less money have very few.

Smaller, multifaceted groups are trying to change that. Faced with a torrent of money flowing from the pockets of the ultra-wealthy, corporations and organizations, these groups are leveraging new technology and reworking old tactics to stem the tide.

Progressive Takeover is one such organization. Operating out of field offices in Wisconsin, its staff has campaigned the old-fashioned way — by knocking on tens of thousands of doors, talking with voters and trying to get them to vote for their candidates.

In 2018, they focused their efforts on Wisconsin and North Carolina, two states where gerrymandering, voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression are active, Will Hoverman, program assistant and communication lead at Takeover, said.

In Wisconsin, they have spent nearly $300,000 across six candidates: Kriss Marion; Caleb Frostman, SD-1, who surprisingly defeated Republican incumbent Andre Jacque in a June special election; Julie Henszey in SD-5; Chris Kapsner in SD-23; Lee Snodgrass in SD-19; and Kyle Whelton in SD-9.

“It can really be the difference between a voter getting reached during an election and having that door knocked and having that conversation and not,” Hoverman said. “For too long, Democrats at the state level, not only in Wisconsin but around the country, have failed to really invest in these down-ballot races.”

The organization is entirely funded by small dollar donations — those under $200. In 2018, they garnered 74,876 contributions with an average donation of $12.29. This has allowed them not only to go door-to-door in the communities where candidates are running, but also spend $200,000 on digital advertising in Wisconsin, attracting 9 million digital ad impressions.

“Our model and our programs are a great response to right wing money coming into the state, but at the same time a lot of what were trying to do is elect people who will enact campaign finance reform that is much stricter than what Gov. Walker has allowed to happen during his time in office,” Hoverman said.

Data for Progress is also leveraging small donor donations, but instead directly infuses campaigns with the money. The program is called “Give Smart.”

“One reason people don’t vote is because they don’t feel like they’re informed, and it’s the same thing with donating down ballot,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, said. “I don’t think most people know their own state senator, much less which state senate district in their state is most likely to be pivotal.”

With a slick website and an effective social media presence – one part of their online strategy is memes – the organization highlighted eight progressive candidates in eight of the most flippable state legislative bodies for people to donate to.

The first list included Julie Henszey, a state Senate District 5 candidate running against Kooyenga for state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s seat, who vacated it to run for the U.S. Senate. It also highlighted state senators in Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida, New York and Arizona and House candidates in Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.

This first list raised $439,000 through ActBlue, a digital fundraising portal. The money, divvied up evenly, amounted to roughly $55,000 in the pockets of these candidates, many who were cash-strapped.

Trial run: 2018 midterm poses first real test of reinforced Wisconsin election security system“Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to Read…

Kristin Bahner, a Minnesota House candidate featured on the first list, woke up to a flood of donations — a “Minnesota miracle.” The entire campaign had hoped to raise $42,000.

“If progressives started filling in those fundraising gaps for candidates, candidates would know who they need to keep good relationships with,” McElwee said

Riding a wave

Republicans may be out-fundraising Democrats, but Democrats have the electoral mood at their backs.

As President Donald Trump’s popularity dips in every state, with 53 percent in Wisconsin disapproving of him, the Democrats are driving greater voter turnout and enthusiasm.

Landmark, Marion’s campaign manager, said while money is important for getting the message out, the message itself and the person saying it is often more important. She said her friend has the rare quality of a politician with genuine warmth and passion.

“When she first told other members of the [non-partisan Lafayette County Board] that she was a Democrat, they were shocked because they just sort of sit down and they work things out,” Landmark said.

The campaign has somewhat been flying in the dark because the campaign can’t afford polling.  

On Nov. 6, after the rush of countless fundraising calls and community events have quieted and the last drops of outside money have dried up, the local candidates who will decide the next decade of politics in Wisconsin will rest and watch, like the rest of the country, as the results trickle in.

“We just have to kind of do our work and hope that at the end of the day it’s going to be enough,” Landmark said.