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Sky's The Limit In Campaign Cash For Wis. Governor

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker,  after voting Tuesday in Wauwatosa, Wis., in the state's gubernatorial recall.
Tom Lynn
/
Getty Images
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, after voting Tuesday in Wauwatosa, Wis., in the state's gubernatorial recall.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vastly out-raised and outspent his Democratic challenger in the state's recall election, largely on the strength of major donations from across the country.

One reason for that was a quirk in Wisconsin law, which lets a governor in Walker's situation bypass limits on political donations.

Wisconsin law says candidates for governor normally may not take donations of more than $10,000 each. That was the limit under which Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrat, operated in the recall election being decided Tuesday at the polls.

But as governor, Walker had a different set of rules. A somewhat obscure state law passed in 1987 says that when a governor is facing a recall challenge, the normal donation limits are suspended for "the payment of legal fees and other expenses."

"What doesn't qualify for 'other expenses'? Not much," says Bill Lueders, who directs the Money and Politics Project at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

For months, Lueders has been combing through campaign laws, financial disclosures, expense reports and other primary documents.

"Tom Barrett does have to abide by this $10,000 limit on individual contributions [and] he has gotten, as of today, 26 contributions of $10,000," Lueders says.

But Walker had more than four times the number of $10,000 contributions as Barrett, he says, and because Walker didn't have to abide by that limit at all, he raised 111 contributions of more than $10,000 each — largely from outside of Wisconsin.

"Fifty-nine percent of his overall contributions come from people in other states," Lueders says.

And three-quarters of the largest donations — those of $10,000 or more — came from donors in other states. They include ardent conservatives such as Foster Friess of Wyoming, the best known benefactor of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum; and Bob Perry of Texas, who has given more than $4 million to Mitt Romney's superPAC, and in 2004 sponsored the Swift Boat ads that attacked Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

All this money has gone from funding the campaigns to being one of the main issues in the recall election.

"He thinks that this state is going to fall for that money coming from out of state," Barrett told supporters to applause at a recent rally. "We have news for him. He's got the mountains of money; I've got you."

Speaking to the local NBC affiliate in Madison, Walker tried to downplay the money advantage and focus on national labor union support for Barrett.

"I think they're trying to buy it, but not for me but against me," Walker said. "The money that's come in since last February is overwhelmingly from special interests, particularly big government unions in Washington who have tried to take me out."

About a quarter of Barrett's money came from outside of Wisconsin. In any other year, that would seem an astronomical amount, Lueders says. But this year it's dwarfed by Walker's out-of-state fundraising.

"I think both sides correctly perceive that the outcome in Wisconsin will have consequences for public workers and others throughout the country," Lueders says.

It's also early evidence of what campaign watchdogs have been predicting for 2012: national organizations, groups and individuals directing a torrent of cash at a few key states that have never seen anything like it before.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.
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