Outside Money Frames Candidates for Wisconsin's U.S. Senate Seat

After a close primary, the race to fill Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat is now underway, with former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson facing off against Madison's U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin. Both campaigns have sizable campaign coffers at their disposal, yet both are being assailed by huge ad buys coming from outside the state. The pro-Thompson ads come from "dark money" nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors, despite raising and spending unlimited funds for the election. The pro-Baldwin ads are aired by big-spending Super PACs that also have no limits on raising or spending but must disclose the source of their funds.

Spending in the early phase of a campaign can be particularly potent in "defining" a candidate -- so how are Thompson and Baldwin being framed, and who is framing them for Wisconsin voters?

"Dark Money" Groups Brand Baldwin as Divisive, Wasteful

Crossroads GPS Blames Baldwin for Entirety of Nation's Debt

After the ad wars for the Republican primary ended on August 15, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS waited less than a day before hitting the airwaves with another Baldwin attack. GPS is a "dark money" nonprofit, organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It does not disclose its donors.

Its first $250,000 ad buy, "With a T," blames Baldwin for the rising national debt and attacks her for supporting the 2009 stimulus bill (which the ad describes as "failed" even though many economists credit the bill with saving millions of jobs). The ad highlights as an example of "wasteful spending" a $800,000 project in Racine used "to replace lightbulbs." The project in question replaced half the lightbulbs in the city of Racine, Wisconsin, including traffic lights, saving the city 59 percent on energy costs and benefitting a Racine-area light manufacturer that was the primary supplier of the lightbulbs. The grant also paid for energy audits of homes and loans to Racine citizens who weatherized their residences.

Ten days later Crossroads GPS spent another $250,000 on a similarly-themed ad, "Mountain," that attacks Baldwin for not supporting a balanced budget amendment.

Koch-Funded Americans for Prosperity Hits Baldwin for "Wasteful Spending"

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a "dark money" money nonprofit founded by billionaire industrialist David Koch, also hit the Wisconsin airwaves after the Republican primary. AFP's Baldwin attack ad features disgruntled Wisconsin voters complaining about the mounting national debt and the price of the Affordable Care Act. This $500,000 ad buy aired in every major media market in Wisconsin, according to AFP's press release.

This is not the first time AFP has attacked Baldwin. Earlier this year, after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived a recall attempt, AFP made a $400,000 ad buy, attempting to theme the recall results as a statewide consensus on wasteful spending and described Baldwin as "part of the problem."

Nationally, Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS are among the most powerful outside spending groups in this election cycle, and together have spent more than all Super PACs combined. AFP has spent at least $47 million attacking Barack Obama, $25 million in August alone. Crossroads GPS has spent over $40 million influencing the presidential election and millions more influencing senate elections around the country.

American Chemistry Council Concocts Pro-Thompson Ad Campaign for ALEC Alum

In addition to ads from Crossroads GPS and AFP that attack his opponent, Thompson is getting a boost from $648,000 in positive ads from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical industry trade group organized under section 501(c)(6) of the tax code. As a 501(c)6, the ACC is not required to disclose its donors. Their ad claims that, if elected, Thompson will create jobs by expanding energy production and cutting spending, and that he has "the experience we need in Washington."

During Thompson's tenure at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld, the firm lobbied on behalf of many of the ACC's member companies, including Dow Chemical, Honeywell, and 3M.

As the Center for Media and Democracy reported, Thompson and the ACC are both connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate bill mill that brings businesses together with state legislators to approve model legislation behind closed doors. Both ACC and many of its member corporations are ALEC members and Thompson is an ALEC alumni and award winner.

Liberal Super PACs Try to Take on Thompson

Majority PAC Says Thompson Promised "to Give His Billion-Dollar Buddies Huge Tax Breaks"

Baldwin is also getting outside support. Majority PAC, a Super PAC associated with the democratic Patriot Majority, is spending around $800,000 on an ad attacking Thompson for working at a lobby shop in Washington DC, and for "promising to give his billion-dollar buddies huge tax breaks by making struggling middle-class families pay for it."

Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions and spend unlimited amounts, but unlike the "dark money" nonprofits supporting Thompson, they must disclose their donors. Top donors to the Majority PAC include $1 million from billionaire hedge fund manager James Simons, $350,000 from Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, and $500,000 from the public employee union American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Majority PAC first began attacking Thompson during the Republican primary, with an ad asking, "He made millions on K Street, working for a DC lobbying firm...how could Thompson ever represent us?" That spot also attacked his main primary challenger Eric Hovde. All told, Majority PAC has spent close to $1 million on Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race.

Majority PAC is currently running ads attacking Republican U.S. Senate candidates in six states, with a particular focus on Florida. Its parent group, Patriot Majority, operates a network of Super PACs and "dark money" nonprofit groups, including Patriot Majority USA, which is running ads attacking the Koch brothers.

Women Vote! Claims Thompson is the Pawn of Special Interest Groups

Women Vote!, a Super PAC associated with Emily's List, a pro-choice organization that helps elect Democratic women to Congress, has spent almost $800,000 attacking Thompson for his lobbying ties. Their most recent ad began airing on August 17 and claims Thompson will leave Wisconsin "in the dust" over images of him riding a motorcycle. Like the Majority PAC ads, the Women Vote! spots criticize Thompson for his work at a DC lobbying firm and suggest he will do the bidding of special interests if elected.

Top donors to Women Vote! include $350,000 from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a PAC that aims to elect LGBT members of Congress, and $250,000 from Nancy Beeuwkes, a major Democratic donor.

Women Vote! has been active in Wisconsin since the beginning of 2012, airing ads during the Republican primary attacking Thompson and Hovde and supporting Baldwin. Overall, Baldwin has been the group's largest investment this year, with Women Vote! spending over $1 million on Wisconsin's senate race.

AFSCME Attacks Thompson for Lobbying and Offshoring U.S. Jobs

The largest single ad buy made in the race so far is $899,469 from "AFSCME People," the Super PAC for the public sector union that has been hit hardest in Wisconsin by Governor Walker's gutting of the state's collective bargaining law. Along with online ads and production costs, AFSCME People has spent nearly $1 million in the state so far.

Its ad quotes Thompson in 2008 saying, "We went to Washington to change Washington, Washington changed us." The ad criticizes Thompson for his post-Bush administration work at a DC lobbying firm, which the ad says included "selling influence to healthcare companies" and "making millions helping insiders at our expense."

The AFSCME ads are part of a $3 million multi-state ad buy that also targets Dean Heller of Nevada and Denny Rehberg of Montana, other Republican contenders for close U.S. Senate seats.