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Wisconsin Newspapers Create False Equivalency on Recall Spending
Two Wisconsin newspapers published front-page stories this week about the state's recall elections, suggesting that both Democrats and Republicans are evenly matched financially, and have even received the same level of support from out-of-state donors. But what is the real story?
Governor Scott Walker has raised at least $25 million so far to defend himself against recall, with around 57 percent of that money coming from outside Wisconsin. Two-thirds of the $13.4 million he has raised since January 1 came from out-of-state sources. His opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has raised less than $1 million in that same time frame. Only 12 percent came from outside Wisconsin.
Those facts did not keep the state's largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, from publishing an article on May 20 with the technically accurate but misleading title "Barrett, Walker have one thing in common: out-of-state donors." That's like comparing Minnesota, "the Land of 10,000 Lakes," with Arizona, a desert state with a few small bodies of water, and saying "Minnesota and Arizona have one thing in common: Water." Walker has raised 120 times as much money from outside the state as his opponent -- approximately $14.4 million for Walker versus only $120,000 for Barrett.
Nor did these facts stop the state's second-largest newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, from running its Sunday, May 21 edition with a front-page article claiming, "despite rhetoric, the parties' mountains of money are about even."
State Journal Misinforms with Incomplete Data
It is true that only comparing the candidate's fundraising -- Walker's $25 million with Barrett's $1 million -- may not give a complete picture. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, an array of groups spending independently from the candidates are playing a growing role in elections. This includes Political Action Committees (PACs) that can now raise and spend unlimited money to support or oppose candidates, as well as special interest groups whose funders are kept in the shadows.
However, the Wisconsin State Journal largely failed to account for those secretly-funded groups that are openly spending millions in the recall elections. The State Journal "analysis" looked only at contributions to campaigns and political groups that file with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) -- but many of the groups that have spent heavily to support Walker do not file with the GAB and do not disclose their funders. This means that the State Journal ignored the role of groups like Club for Growth and the Koch-founded-and-funded Americans for Prosperity.
"[T]he leading spender on the Democratic side in last summer's senate recalls was We Are Wisconsin, which reported spending more than $10.7 million. Its funding sources were reported, so the donations were included in the State Journal analysis. The leading spender on the Republican side was Club for Growth, which spent a fairly comparable amount. In fact, based on our analysis of TV ad buys, the group outspent We Are Wisconsin by 18% on television advertising. But Club for Growth does not report its election fundraising and spending, so its donations were not included in the newspaper's tally."
It also appears that the newspaper failed to account for the election involvement of groups like:
- Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the MacIver Institute, which have spent at least $2.9 million on the "It's Working!" TV and web ads that started running six months ago;
- The Center for Union Facts, a Bradley Foundation-funded project of infamous corporate lobbyist Rick Berman, which has poured over $1 million into anti-union ads running in Wisconsin;
- The state business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), which sources say has spent $3.4 million on ads that directly endorse Walker and echo AFP's "It's Working" theme;
- The Republican Governors Association and their "Right Direction Wisconsin PAC," which has spent an estimated $4.9 million in the 2012 recall election, and was the top spender in a review of TV ad buys conducted by Gannett News Service. The State Journal's interactive campaign graphic lists the Democratic Governors Association PAC on the blue side, but nothing by the Republican Governors Association on the red side.
"A $20 Million Fundraising Edge for the Republicans?"
Around half of the $50 million spent by groups acting independently of candidates in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections came from organizations that do not disclose their donors, and McCabe notes that most of the secret money has gone to benefit Republican organizations. Because the State Journal report looked only at reported "contributions," these secretly-funded groups were omitted from the analysis, sharply skewing the results.
Although the involvement of some pro-Democratic groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee was also not counted by the State Journal, McCabe estimates that if the newspaper had included all undisclosed interest group money in its analysis, there would be at least "a $20 million fundraising edge for the Republicans."
Selective Time Frame Distorts Commonalities between Walker, Barrett
The State Journal article also based its finding on all political contributions made since January of 2011 -- which encompasses the state Supreme Court election between David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, the nine Senate recall elections held last summer, and the Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign.
Such a broad sweep obscures the funding and spending disparity between Walker and Barrett. Democrats and Republicans did raise and spend roughly the same amount on last summer's recall elections, but Walker and groups supporting him spent $30 million on the gubernatorial recall before a single vote was cast in the May 8th primary in which the most contested vote was in the Democratic primary over who would face Walker. Aggregating the money for all races over the past 16 months blurs Walker's financial advantage.
Out-of-State Claims also Out-of-Whack
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel uses a similarly distorted review of spending from the past year. Its May 20 article, "Barrett, Walker have one thing in common: Out-of-state donors," sets up a false equivalency by suggesting that both Walker and Barrett are benefiting equally from out-of-state assistance.
The article buries the key facts about what the title suggests the candidates have in common -- how much money each have received from out-of-state. It obscures the fact that donors outside Wisconsin gave Walker two-thirds of the $13 million he has raised since January 1 (and 57 percent of the $25 million raised since last year), versus Barrett receiving only 12 percent from out-of-state. Overall, Walker has raised 120 times as much money from outside the state as his opponent -- approximately $14.4 million for Walker versus only $120,000 for Barrett. That disparity can buy a lot of TV ad time.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice, whose investigative reports are usually reliable, in this story references the PACs We Are Wisconsin and Wisconsin for Falk as proof of out-of-staters helping Democrats, because those groups have received significant funding from national unions. Although the article and title imply that spending by these groups helped Barrett, both groups actually supported Falk in the primary.
Also, as with the State Journal article, the Journal Sentinel's piece omits the significant spending on ads by special interest groups that do not report their funding and spending, like Americans for Prosperity, which is bankrolled and led by out-of-state billionaire David Koch (who also recently gave one million dollars to the Republican Governors Association to help Walker, as he did in 2010).
Additionally, the article largely downplays Walker's jet-setting across the country to raise funds from billionaire donors like former AIG bank CEO Hank Greenberg in New York or Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, who has recently come under fire for scheming to fund racially-charged anti-Obama ads. In an apparent effort to provide "balance," the Journal-Sentinel describes a single Barrett fundraiser hosted by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and says that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will host a fundraiser later this month but without noting that the event will be held in Wisconsin, to raise funds from people here in this state.
With two weeks until the June 5 recall elections, Wisconsinites will likely see a growing flood of ads and political spending. It remains to be seen how the state's major dailies will cover it.